The Bloggers' FAQ on Section 230 Protections discusses a powerful federal law that gives you, as a web host, protection against legal claims arising from hosting information written by third parties.
What is this "Section 230" thing anyway?
Section 230 refers to Section 230 of Title 47 of the United States Code (47 USC § 230). It was passed as part of the much-maligned Communication Decency Act of 1996. Many aspects of the CDA were unconstitutional restrictions of freedom of speech (and, with EFF's help, struck down by the Supreme Court), but this section survived and has been a valuable defense for Internet intermediaries ever since.
For more, check out EFF's CDA 230 issue page.
What protection does Section 230 provide?
Section 230 says that "No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider." This federal law preempts any state laws to the contrary: "[n]o cause of action may be brought and no liability may be imposed under any State or local law that is inconsistent with this section." The courts have repeatedly rejected attempts to limit the reach of Section 230 to "traditional" Internet service providers, instead treating many diverse entities as "interactive computer service providers."
How does Section 230 apply to bloggers?
Bloggers can be both a provider and a user of interactive computer services. Bloggers are users when they create and edit blogs through a service provider, and they are providers to the extent that they allow third parties to add comments or other material to their blogs.
Your readers' comments, entries written by guest bloggers, tips sent by email, and information provided to you through an RSS feed would all likely be considered information provided by another content provider. This would mean that you would not be held liable for defamatory statements contained in it. However, if you selected the third-party information yourself, no court has ruled whether this information would be considered "provided" to you. One court has limited Section 230 immunity to situations in which the originator "furnished it to the provider or user under circumstances in which a reasonable person...would conclude that the information was provided for publication on the Internet...."
So if you are actively going out and gathering data on your own, then republishing it on your blog, we cannot guarantee that Section 230 would shield you from liability. But we believe that Section 230 should cover information a blogger has selected from other blogs or elsewhere on the Internet, since the originator provided the information for publication to the world. However, no court has ruled on this.
Do I lose Section 230 immunity if I edit the content?
Courts have held that Section 230 prevents you from being held liable even if you exercise the usual prerogative of publishers to edit the material you publish. You may also delete entire posts. However, you may still be held responsible for information you provide in commentary or through editing. For example, if you edit the statement, "Fred is not a criminal" to remove the word "not," a court might find that you have sufficiently contributed to the content to take it as your own. Likewise, if you link to an article, but provide a defamatory comment with the link, you may not qualify for the immunity.
The courts have not clarified the line between acceptable editing and the point at which you become the "information content provider." To the extent that your edits or comment change the meaning of the information, and the new meaning is defamatory, you may lose the protection of Section 230.
Is Section 230 limited to defamation?
No. It has been used to protect intermediaries against claims of negligent misrepresentation, interference with business expectancy, breach of contract, intentional nuisance, violations of federal civil rights, and emotional distress. It protected against a state cause of action for violating a statute that forbids dealers in autographed sports items from misrepresenting those items as authentically autographed. It extends to unfair competition laws. It protected a library from being held liable for misuse of public funds, nuisance, and premises liability for providing computers allowing access to pornography.
Wow, is there anything Section 230 can't do?
Yes. It does not apply to federal criminal law, intellectual property law, and electronic communications privacy law.
What are some key Section 230 cases?
EFF has an archive of some of the key cases addressing Section 230.
Do blog or online forum operators have a legal obligation to post acceptable use guidelines for commenters?
No. Courts have held that Section 230 allows, but does not require, hosts to establish (and implement) standards of acceptable use without risking liability for doing so. But posting guidelines is still a good idea, since people will often appreciate some guidance of what is or is not acceptable.
Are blog or online forum operators legally obliged to hold to their policies?
Probably not. Most acceptable use policies give the host wide latitude over what editorial actions they take and are not presented in the form of a binding contract.
Can my commenters sue me for editing or deleting their comments on my blog?
Generally no, if you are not the government. Section 230 protect a blog host from liability for “any action voluntarily taken in good faith to restrict access to or availability of material that the provider or user considers to be obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable, whether or not such material is constitutionally protected.” This would include editing or deleting posts you consider objectionable, even if those posts would be protected by the First Amendment against government censorship.
Sweet, I can edit the comments on my blog to change the meaning and make commenters I don't like seem like crazed defamers.
Not so fast. As noted above, Section 230 protects actions taken in good faith, and you may be liable for new information you create. The ability to edit comments is strongly protected, but you should not abuse that power.