Legal Issues

by Carlo Longino

Court Reinforces, And Even Expands, Site Owners' Immunity For Other People's Content

from the no-libel-for-you dept

The Communications Decency Act, passed in 1996, was, like so many other government attempts to regulate technology, something of a mess. However, it does have one bright spot: Section 230, which generally says that site providers aren't liable for content on their sites which they didn't post. Typically, this refers to things like comments and forums. For instance, if a commenter here made a libelous or otherwise defamatory statement, they're liable for it, not Techdirt. This has been held up several times in various courts, because it makes sense to target the actual source of the defamation, not the platform provider. There have been repeated efforts to narrow the scope of Section 230, but a recent decision seems to have expanded it a little bit.

A federal judge in Texas has ruled that Yahoo wasn't liable in a civil case for an child pornography online group set up and moderated by a user on its servers. The user's in jail on criminal charges stemming from the group, but a civil suit targeted the ISP with a variety of claims, though the judge ruled that Section 230 gave them immunity, even though it was alleged Yahoo had broken the law by hosting child porn. This means that people can't file civil cases against site owners or hosting providers, and use the allegation of criminal conduct as a way to get around Section 230. The law was also intended to foster self-regulation of obscene and illegal content by service providers, and immunity is an important aspect of that. Lawsuits often try to allege that if a service provider regulates any content on their servers, they're legally liable for all of it -- something that's wholly impractical, particularly for a service the size of Yahoo Groups. The judge rightly notes in the decision (PDF) that to allow suits on either basis (alleging criminal activity, or that any level of regulation creates liability) would have a chilling effect on online speech, which is something Congress didn't want to do in enacting the law. To do so would not just stifle online speech, but it would also stifle innovation -- since any sort of interactive or user-generated content could create an impossible level of legal liability for site owners.

Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1. identicon
    bee, Jan 24th, 2007 @ 6:19pm

    Interesting. Compare that to a financial institution that must report any strange exchange of money to the federal govt. This is of course anti-money laundering. Firms must know every one of their customers, must know where there money came from and where it goes.

    Of course, a financial institution is making money off these funds and customers, but then again, so are sites like YouTube and Yahoo.

    Again, these transfers number in the millions, and financial institutions have had to and will continue to invest in technology that allows them to flag certain transactions, and currently they only catch about 10% of money laundering activity, but still.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. identicon
    misanthropic humanist, Jan 24th, 2007 @ 6:43pm

    What you say about the banks is interesting Bee, but to fit it to Carlos original explanation that would be like the bank being held responsible for the customer being a mafia money launderer because they knew what was in his account.

    The provider of any service like YouTube or Yahoo makes money off their visitors. I don't see how that should lay them open to liability. The shopping center down my road provides a service, and makes money on it, but I can't see how they could be liable if I started fish slapping random strangers with a wet halibut, even if they supplied the aquatic vertebrate in question.

    This ends up with the old gun manufacturers debate. Can you, should you, hold the manufacturer of any tool or service responsible for how that tool is used? I don't beleive you should. Which makes a nonsense of those who attack the authors of file-sharing programs which have many legitimate uses.

    However, there are double standards at work here. Many sites would like to believe that they own the works posted on their sites, when it suits them, and be able to disown the content when it causes them problems. Perhaps they need to make a clear statement about that to avoid liability. I think Napster were forced to include some silly statement at one time like "should not be used to exchange copyrighted material", when of course everything you write (as an individual) is copyrighted by default.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. identicon
    ivan g, Jan 24th, 2007 @ 9:23pm


    what has money laundering got to do with freedom of speech?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. identicon
    Rick, Jan 24th, 2007 @ 11:39pm


    I can't believe it. An intelligent judge out of Texas who actuall gets it!

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. identicon
    Louis, Jan 25th, 2007 @ 3:44am


    One down for Freedom, twenty million to go!

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. identicon
    bee, Jan 25th, 2007 @ 6:33am

    Bee, thats the point, financial institutions are responsible if they end up facilitating money laundering.

    Money laundering and holding financial institutions responsible for their customers who are breaking the law actually has a lot to do with this case. Its holding one party responsible for the illegal activities that others are doing.

    I know its kind of a reach, but the two ideas are somewhat related.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. identicon
    ScytheNoire, Jan 25th, 2007 @ 8:54am

    surprised the RIAA and MPAA aren't fighting against this judgement, since it now helps sites like isoHunt who were recently shutdown because of MPAA threats. the ISP freaked out and shut them down. now ISP's have a better chance of telling the RIAA and MPAA to screw off and no you can't have their clients info. how about you get a judge to first sign the court order making them give up that info.

    this is a huge win for freedom.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. identicon
    |333173|3|_||3, Jan 29th, 2007 @ 7:36pm


    Wikipedia would be in a difficult position, since the question could be raised of wether all users are members of the Foundation, or just the paid staff. Furthermore, although the content is moderated by users, only some of the users are staff, and thus only pages viewed by them would have been modderated by them. OTOH, most offending content would not stay for long, except as a link at the end of an article, or a file ASCII-bufferd on a minor page (in the history, can't remove it except as a senior tech.)

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

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