December 6, 2012 | By Adi Kamdar

EFF's Guide to CDA 230: The Most Important Law Protecting Online Speech

In 1996, while debating the intricacies of a bill that would massively overhaul the telecommunications laws of the United States, two astute Congressmen introduced an amendment that would allow the Internet to flourish.

The amendment—which would become Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA 230)—stated 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." In other words, online intermediaries that host or republish speech—blogs, review sites, social networks, and more—are protected against a range of laws that might otherwise be used to hold them legally responsible for what others say and do.

CDA 230 is crucial to the free flow of expression online. While the rest of the Communications Decency Act, an attempt by the government to regulate indecent content online, was found unconstitutional by the courts, Section 230 survived. As Judge Wilkinson put it in the seminal CDA 230 case, Zeran v. America Online, "Section 230 was enacted, in part, to maintain the robust nature of Internet communication, and accordingly, to keep government interference in the medium to a minimum." Websites could edit, filter, and screen content if they wanted without being held liable for the content itself.

To better inform everyone on the Internet of the importance of this law, we have created an extensive guide to CDA 230. We feel that it is crucial for everyone to familiarize themselves the fundamental laws protecting free speech online, whether you're a lawyer, innovator, student, entrepreneur, policymaker, or simply an Internet user.

Why? Well, despite the fact that courts have affirmed time and time again how crucial CDA 230 is, states have attempted to pass laws that undercut its authority. One prominent example is in Washington state, where the state legislature attempted to make online service providers criminally liable for providing access to content posted by third parties. EFF, on behalf of the Internet Archive, successfully challenged the statute on CDA 230 and constitutional grounds, obtaining a preliminary injunction from a federal judge in July and obtaining an agreement today from the state to permanently enjoin the statute's enforcement.

We're strong believers in the idea that a safe future for civil liberties rests in the hands of an educated and informed public. With that in mind, check out our new guide to CDA 230. Not only will it inform you about the basics of the law, but it has some pretty nifty features:

  • Key Legal Cases – This is a collection of major cases that have involved CDA 230. These cases have helped clarify the powerful protections the law offers—and its legal limits. You can sort the collection by issue or jurisdiction, and each case page has a succinct summary of the parties, the claims, and the results.
  • Legislative History – The history of CDA 230 is a fascinating one, and it begins with two important court cases during the mid-1990s: Cubby v. CompuServe and Stratton Oakmont v. Prodigy. Congress was worried that intermediary liability would hinder companies and prevent the sort of innovation they envisioned happening with this new Internet medium. At the same time, they wanted to protect children from being exposed to indecent material online. This tension led to the passage and ultimate invalidation of the Communications Decency Act -- as well as the survival of its crucial Section 230.
  • EFF Involvement – Since the initial Reno v. ACLU case that struck down the Communications Decency Act, EFF has been involved with a number of cases that have dealt with the scope and protections guaranteed by Section 230. Here you can check out the specifics of such cases, as well as the arguments we made as amicus or counsel.
  • CDA 230 Successes – The best way to understand the importance of a law like CDA 230 is to see it in action. That's why we have interviewed a number of senior staff at various online companies whose existence depends on CDA 230. Here you can see Aaron Schur of Yelp explaining why CDA 230 is crucial to a site built off of third-party reviews and Paul Sieminski of Automattic/WordPress.com delivering an account of how the law protects free speech. Check back often for more success cases.
  • Infographic: CDA 230's Importance – Check out EFF's and craigconnects' fun, visual explanation of the importance of CDA 230.

EFF works to ensure strong legal protections for Internet intermediaries and users and endeavors to fight threats that would weaken such protections. Fighting for your right to free speech is a fundamental part of our mission, and CDA 230 is one of those rare laws that actually advances this cause.


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