States Attorneys General Want Special Exception To Blame Sites For Actions Of Users
from the that-would-be-a-very-bad-idea dept
One of the most important laws that has enabled innovation on the internet to thrive is Section 230 of the CDA. We’ve written about it many times. What it says is fairly basic: a website cannot be held liable for actions by its users. There are a few exceptions and caveats, but that’s the basic premise. And it makes perfect common sense — so much so that it’s almost amazing that you need a law to say it. But, we do, because when grandstanding and moral panics come around, politicians and people with pitchforks love to blame third parties and intermediaries as if they’re the problem. And, having intermediaries be liable for how users are using their services creates all sorts of problems. It makes it that much more difficult for companies to innovate, because they’re taking on tremendous potential liability if anyone misuses their service. So, they then either don’t develop an open service, or they have to invest heavily in services to filter/monitor/block any potential misdeeds (which also will lead to blocking legitimate uses as well).
Of course, the grandstanding politicians who jump on moral panics absolutely hate Section 230. They always have. As we’ve discussed in detail over the years, the type of politician that focuses on grandstanding on moral panics the most is always a state attorney general. They make grand public pronouncements against companies they don’t like, often with absolutely no legal basis, and then browbeat them into a “settlement” just so the companies can stop having to deal with the AGs lying about them in public all the time. Chris Tolles, the CEO of Topix, gave a great detailed explanation of how various AGs ganged up on him, basically issuing a press release accusing him of doing horrible things, totally misrepresenting what the company did, but without naming a single law they violated (because they hadn’t). In response, Tolles did what most people would think you should do in that case: explain to the AGs what Topix actually did, and why it was perfectly reasonable. In response, the AGs (more of them this time) issued another press release, taking direct statements that Tolles had told them further out of context, and making the company sound even worse. Eventually he “settled” because fighting them was costly.
Of course, the lack of a legal basis often stymies these attempts, and a big thing that gets in the way: Section 230. So it should come as little surprise, as noted by Eric Goldman today, that the states Attorneys General are planning to ask Congress for an exemption to Section 230 when (you guessed it) states AGs bring a case. He heard it today while on a panel at the annual meeting of the National Association of Attorneys General, where he was on a panel about Section 230. During the discussion, Goldman says that an unnamed Attorney General (he didn’t catch which one) made a comment about the plan.
Section 230 has been under attack for some time, but going to Congress to try to make that kind of exception would be a huge disaster. It would allow these AGs to continue with bogus grandstanding campaigns, but actually with the ability to create massive problems for companies actually trying to offer usable, open platforms for users. Nearly every company would need to proactively filter any kind of user generated content, and would be at risk of tremendous legal liability if “bad stuff” got through. This would be a huge attack on internet innovation, all so some ambitious politicians can try to make more headlines by attacking tech companies. The state Attorney General position is considered the classic “stepping stone” position, which many politicians use to run for Governor or Senator in their state, and one way to help with the campaign is to get lots of headlines around “protecting the children” and whatnot. So, basically, these politicians would be breaking one of the key elements that has allowed internet innovation to thrive, to help them get a few more headlines in their quest for higher office.