Highlights From Former Rep. Chris Cox's Amicus Brief Explaining The History And Policy Behind Section 230
from the future-reference dept
The Copia Institute was not the only party to file an amicus brief in support of Airbnb and Homeaway’s Ninth Circuit appeal of a district court decision denying them Section 230 protection. For instance, a number of Internet platforms, including those like Glassdoor, which hosts specialized user expression, and those like eBay, which hosts transactional user expression, filed one pointing out how a ruling denying Airbnb and Homeaway would effectively deny it to far more platforms hosting far more kinds of user speech than just those platforms behind the instant appeal.
And then there was this brief, submitted on behalf of former Congressman Chris Cox, who, with then-Representative Ron Wyden, had been instrumental in getting Section 230 on the books in the first place. With this brief the Court does not need to guess whether Congress intended for Section 230 to apply to platforms like Airbnb and Homeaway; the statute’s author confirms that it did, and why.
In giving insight into the statutory history of Section 230 the brief addresses the two main issues raised by the Airbnb appeal ? issues that are continuing to come up over and over again in Section 230-related litigation in state and federal courts all over the country: does Section 230 apply to platforms intermediating transactional user expression, and does Section 230’s pre-emption language preclude efforts by state and local authorities to hold these platforms liable for intermediating the consummation of the transactional speech. Cox’s brief describes how Congress intended both these questions to be answered in the affirmative and thus may be relevant to these other cases. With that in mind, we are archiving ? and summarizing ? the brief here.
To illustrate why Section 230 should apply in these situations, first the brief explains the historical context that prompted the statute in the first place:
In 1995, on a flight from California to Washington, DC during a regular session of Congress, Representative Cox read a Wall Street Journal article about a New York Superior Court case that troubled him deeply. The case involved a bulletin board post on the Prodigy web service by an unknown user. The post said disparaging things about an investment bank. The bank filed suit for libel but couldn?t locate the individual who wrote the post. So instead, the bank sought damages from Prodigy, the site that hosted the bulletin board. [page 3]
The Stratton Oakmont v. Prodigy decision alarmed Cox for several reasons. One, it represented a worrying change in judicial attitudes towards third party liability:
Up until then, the courts had not permitted such claims for third party liability. In 1991, a federal district court in New York held that CompuServe was not liable in circumstances like the Prodigy case. The court reasoned that CompuServe ?ha[d] no opportunity to review [the] contents? of the publication at issue before it was uploaded ?into CompuServe?s computer banks,? and therefore was not subject to publisher liability for the third party content.” [page 3-4]
It had also resulted in a damage award of $200 million dollars against Prodigy. [page 4]. Damage awards like these can wipe technologies off the map. If platforms had to fear the crippling effect that even one such award, arising from just one user, could have on their developing online services, it would dissuade them from being platforms at all. As the brief observes:
The accretion of burdens would be especially harmful to smaller websites. Future startups, facing massive exposure to potential liability if they do not monitor user content and take responsibility for third parties? legal compliance, would encounter significant obstacles to capital formation. Not unreasonably, some might abjure any business model reliant on third-party content. [page 26]
Then there was also a third, related concern: according to the logic of Stratton Oakmont, which had distinguished itself from the earlier Cubby v. Compuserve case, unlike Compuserve, Prodigy had “sought to impose general rules of civility on its message boards and in its forums.” [page 4].
The perverse incentive this case established was clear: Internet platforms should avoid even modest efforts to police their sites. [page 4]
The essential math was stark: Congress was worried about what was going on the Internet. It wanted platforms to be an ally in policing it. But without protection for platforms, they wouldn’t be. They couldn’t be. So Cox joined with Senator Wyden to craft a bill that would trump the Stratton Oakmont holding. The result was the Internet Freedom and Family Empowerment Act, H.R. 1978, 104 Cong. (1995), which, by a 420-4 vote reflecting significant bipartisan support, became an amendment to the Communications Decency Act ? Congress’s attempt to address the less desirable material on the Internet ? which then came into force as part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. [page 5-6]. The Supreme Court later gutted the indecency provisions of the CDA in Reno v. ACLU, but the parts of the CDA at Section 230 have stood the test of time. [page 6 note 2].
The statutory language provided necessary relief to platforms in two important ways. First, it included a “Good Samaritan” provision, meaning that “[i]f an Internet platform does review some of the content and restricts it because it is obscene or otherwise objectionable, then the platform does not thereby assume a duty to monitor all content.” [page 6]. Because keeping platforms from having to monitor was the critical purpose of the statute:
All of the unique benefits the Internet provides are dependent upon platforms being able to facilitate communication among vast numbers of people without being required to review those communications individually. [page 12]
The concerns were practical. As other members of Congress noted at the time, “There is no way that any of that any of those entities, like Prodigy, can take the responsibility [for all of the] information that is going to be coming in to them from all manner of sources.? [page 14]
While the volume of users [back when Section 230 was passed] was only in the millions, not the billions as today, it was evident to almost every user of the Web even then that no group of human beings would ever be able to keep pace with the growth of user-generated content on the Web. For the Internet to function to its potential, Internet platforms could not be expected to monitor content created by website users. [page 2]
Thus Section 230 established a new rule expressly designed to spare platforms from having to attempt this impossible task in order to survive:
The rule established in the bill […] was crystal clear: the law will recognize that it would be unreasonable to require Internet platforms to monitor content created by website users. Correlatively, the law will impose full responsibility on the website users to comply with all laws, both civil and criminal, in connection with their user-generated content. [But i]t will not shift that responsibility to Internet platforms, because doing so would directly interfere with the essential functioning of the Internet. [page 5]
That concern for the essential functioning of the Internet also explains why Section 230 was not drawn narrowly. If Congress had only been interested in protecting platforms from liability for potentially defamatory speech (as was at issue in the Stratton Oakmont case) it could have written a law that only accomplished that end. But Section 230’s language was purposefully more expansive. If it were not more expansive, while platforms would not have to monitor all the content it intermediated for defamation, they would still have to monitor it for everything else, and thus nothing would have been accomplished with this law:
The inevitable consequence of attaching platform liability to user-generated content is to force intermediaries to monitor everything posted on their sites. Congress understood that liability-driven monitoring would slow traffic on the Internet, discourage the development of Internet platforms based on third party content, and chill third-party speech as intermediaries attempt to avoid liability. Congress enacted Section 230 because the requirement to monitor and review user-generated content would degrade the vibrant online forum for speech and for e-commerce that Congress wished to embrace. [page 15]
Which returns to why Section 230 was intended to apply to transactional platforms. Congress didn’t want to be selective about which types of platforms could benefit from liability protection. It wanted them all to:
[T]he very purpose of Section 230 was to obliterate any legal distinction between the CompuServe model (which lacked the e-commerce features of Prodigy and the then-emergent AOL) and more dynamically interactive platforms. ? Congress intended to ?promote the continued development of the Internet and other interactive computer services? and ?preserve the vibrant and competitive free market? that the Internet had unleashed. Forcing web sites to a Compuserve or Craigslist model would be the antithesis of the congressional purpose to ?encourage open, robust, and creative use of the internet? and the continued ?development of e-commerce.? Instead, it will slow commerce on the Internet, increase costs for websites and consumers, and restrict the development of platform marketplaces. This is just what Congress hoped to avoid through Section 230. [page 23-24]
And it wanted them all to be protected everywhere because Congress also recognized that they needed to be protected everywhere in order to be protected at all:
A website [?] is immediately and uninterruptedly exposed to billions of Internet users in every U.S. jurisdiction and around the planet. This makes Internet commerce uniquely vulnerable to regulatory burdens in thousands of jurisdictions. So too does the fact that the Internet is utterly indifferent to state borders. These characteristics of the Internet, Congress recognized, would subject this quintessentially interstate commerce to a confusing and burdensome patchwork of regulations by thousands of state, county, and municipal jurisdictions, unless federal policy remedied the situation. [page 27]
Congress anticipated that states and local authorities would be tempted to impose liability on platforms, and in doing so interfere with the operation of the Internet by forcing platforms to monitor after all and thus cripple their operation:
Other state, county, and local governments would no doubt find that fining websites for their users? infractions is more convenient than fining each individual who violates local laws. Given the unlimited geographic range of the Internet, unbounded by state or local jurisdiction, the aggregate burden on an individual web platform would be multiplied exponentially. While one monitoring requirement in one city may seem a tractable compliance burden, myriad similar-but-not-identical regulations could easily damage or shut down Internet platforms. [page 25]
So, “[t]o ensure the quintessentially interstate commerce of the Internet would be governed by a uniform national policy” of sparing platforms the need to monitor, Congress deliberately foreclosed the ability of state and local authorities to interfere with that policy with Section 230’s pre-emption provision. [page 10]. Without this provision, the statute would be useless:
Were every state and municipality free to adopt its own policy concerning when an Internet platform must assume duties in connection with content created by third party users, not only would compliance become oppressive, but the federal policy itself could quickly be undone. [page 13]
This pre-emption did not make the Internet a lawless place, however. Laws governing offline analogs to the services starting to flourish on the web would continue to apply; Section 230 simply prevented platforms from being held derivatively liable for user generated content that violated them. [page 9-10].
Notably, none of what Section 230 proposed was a controversial proposition:
When the bill was debated, no member from either the Republican or Democratic side could be found to speak against it. The debate time was therefore shared between Democratic and Republican supporters of the bill, a highly unusual procedure for significant legislation. [page 11]
It was popular because it advanced Congress’s overall policy to foster the most beneficial content online, and the least detrimental.
Section 230 by its terms applies to legal responsibility of any type, whether under civil or criminal state statutes and municipal ordinances. But the fact that the legislation was included in the CDA, concerned with offenses including criminal pornography, is a measure of how serious Congress was about immunizing Internet platforms from state and local laws. Internet platforms were to be spared responsibility for monitoring third-party content even in these egregious cases.
A bipartisan supermajority of Congress did not support this policy because they wished to give online commerce an advantage over offline businesses. Rather, it is the inherent nature of Internet commerce that caused Congress to choose purposefully to make third parties and not Internet platforms responsible for compliance with laws generally applicable to those third parties. Platform liability for user-generated content would rob the technology of its vast interstate and indeed global capability, which Congress decided to ?embrace? and ?welcome? not only because of its commercial potential but also ?the opportunity for education and political discourse that it offers for all of us.? [page 11-12]
As the brief explains elsewhere, Congress’s legislative instincts appear to have been born out, and the Internet today is replete with valuable services and expression. [page 7-8]. Obviously not everything the Internet offers is necessarily beneficial, but the challenges the Internet’s success pose don’t negate the policy balance Congress struck. Section 230 has enabled those successes, and if we want its commercial and educational benefit to continue to accrue, we need to make sure that the statute’s critical protection remains available to all who depend on it to realize that potential.