EFF filed a brief in federal court arguing that a lower court’s ruling jeopardizes the online platforms that make the Internet a robust platform for users’ free speech.
The brief, filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, argues that 47 U.S.C. § 230, enacted as part of the Communications Decency Act (known simply as “Section 230”) broadly protects online platforms, including review websites, when they aggregate or otherwise edit users’ posts.
Generally, Section 230 provides legal immunity for online intermediaries that host or republish speech by protecting them against a range of laws that might otherwise be used to hold them legally responsible for what others say and do.
Section 230’s immunity directly led to the development of the platforms everyone uses today, allowing people to upload videos to their favorite platforms such as YouTube, as well as leave reviews on Amazon or Yelp. It also incentivizes the creation of new platforms that can host users’ content, leading to more innovation that enables the robust free speech found online.
The lower court’s decision in Consumer Cellular v. ConsumerAffairs.com, however, threatens to undermine the broad protections of Section 230, EFF’s brief argues.
In the case, Consumer Cellular alleged, among other things, that ConsumerAffairs.com should be held liable for aggregating negative reviews about its business into a star rating. It also alleged that ConsumerAffairs.com edited or otherwise deleted certain reviews of Consumer Cellular in bad faith.
Courts and the text of Section 230, however, plainly allow platforms to edit or aggregate user-generated content into summaries or star ratings without incurring legal liability, EFF’s brief argues. It goes on: “And any function protected by Section 230 remains so regardless of the publisher’s intent.”
By allowing Consumer Cellular’s claims against ConsumerAffairs.com to proceed, the lower court seriously undercut Section 230’s legal immunity for online platforms. If the decision is allowed to stand, EFF’s brief argues, then platforms may take steps to further censor or otherwise restrict user content out of fear of being held liable.
That outcome, EFF warns, could seriously diminish the Internet’s ability to serve as a diverse forum for free speech.
The Internet it is constructed of and depends upon intermediaries. The many varied online intermediary platforms, including Twitter, Reddit, YouTube, and Instagram, all give a single person, with minimal resources, almost anywhere in the world the ability to communicate with the rest of the world. Without intermediaries, that speaker would need technical skill and money that most people lack to disseminate their message. If our legal system fails to robustly protect intermediaries, it fails to protect free speech online.