Section 230 – “A” Decision That Could Change “The” World
Some say Section 230 (c)(1) of the Communications Decency Act, (“CDA”) gave us the twenty-six
words that created the Internet, but “the right to free speech” would be the foundation upon which the
Internet was built. Subsection (c)(1) tells usthat “[n]o provider or user of an interactive computer servic
shall be treated as a publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content
provider.” Some legal scholars, politicians, and even judges across this nation believe that (c)(1) does not
allow for an interactive computer service provider to be treated as “a” publisher or speaker of any content,
so long as the content was created entirely by someone else.
We hear it day after day … “you cannot treat a service provider as ‘a’ publisher because they did
not create the content. You cannot sue because Section 230 protects Tech Giants from everything.” What
if I told you that all minds prescribing to this view missed something? What if I told you that one word
changes the entire understanding of Section 230 protections? What if I told you that one word could
literally correct the rampant legal misapplication of CDA immunity that is crippling us economically,
ideologically, and politically? Would you want to understand how?
James Madison once argued that the most important word relating to “the right to free speech”
is the word “the.” “The right” implied that free speech pre-existed any potential abridgement. Did you
catch the deliberate mistake I made from the clues I left you? One word changes the entire meaning of
(c)(1). Subsection 230(c)(1) does not say that a service provider cannot be treated as “a” publisher, it says
that a service provider cannot be treated as “the” publisher in relation to content provided by another.
The action to publish any information must be done entirely by “the publisher” not in addition to “the
publisher” by the service provider as “a publisher”.
One simple word can make huge a difference. Changing “the” to “a” changes how (c)(1) immunity
works. If a service provider cannot be treated as “a publisher,” then it cannot be held responsible for its
own actions relating to the content provided by another. The difference between “a publisher” and “the
publisher” is the difference between who actively provided the content online. “A” versus “the” is a major
source of the confusion surrounding a simple yet elegant law that was enacted to protect this country’s
youth from Internet filth. It has allowed service providers the ability to act as “a publisher” of the content
of another with legal impunity.
The Supreme Court of the United States has held that every word of the law is important, we must
avoid redundancies or duplications in the law wherever possible, and we must interpret the law in a manor
most fitting of the legislature’s original intent. The misinterpretation of one word has changed the entire
meaning and application of CDA immunity. Section 230 protections have become so broad and
misunderstood that it seems like anything a social media company does is insulated as if it had sovereign
immunity, no matter how illegal or otherwise immersed in bad faith the action is. That is about to end.
The legislature never intended for Section 230 to be an absolute, carte blanche grant of immunity;
i.e., never intended for the CDA to create a no man’s land of Internet lawlessness. Again, its original
purpose was to protect our country’s children, ridding the Internet of filthy content. As Attorney General
Barr pointed out: “In the years leading up to Section 230, courts had held that an online platform that
passively hosted third-party content was not liable as a publisher if any of that content was defamatory,
but that a platform would be liable as a publisher for all its third-party content if it exercised discretion
to remove any third-party material.”
A service provider could become liable for all of its third-party content if it acted as “a publisher”
to remove content so the legislature created a second legal protection for a service provider when it took
“any action” as “a publisher” to “restrict materials,” so long as it acted voluntarily and in good faith.
Subsection 230(c)(1) does not protect a service provider when it acts as “a publisher” in the restriction of
content of another, that is the function of Subsection 230(c)(2)(A). We know that this must be true
because if a service provider could not be treated as “a publisher” and removing content is something
publishers do – Subsection 230(c)(1) would swallow the protections of Subsection 230(c)(2)(A). This
misinterpretation would create a redundancy of law that the Supreme Court tells us to avoid.
However, the Ninth Circuit Court further complicated the misunderstandings of Section 230
protections. The Ninth Circuit Court incorrectly held that Subsection 230(c)(1) does not render Subsection
230(c)(2)(A) “redundant,” as Subsection 230(c)(2) “provides an additional shield from liability.” More
specifically, holding that “the persons who can take advantage of this liability shield are not merely
those whom subsection (c)(1) already protects, but any provider of an interactive computer service.
Thus, even those who cannot take advantage of subsection (c)(1), perhaps because they developed,
even in part, the content at issue can take advantage of subsection (c)(2).” On its face, that sub-holding
might make some sense and not appear to create a redundancy between (c)(1) and (c)(2). But that subholding does not stand alone – in the bigger picture, the Ninth Circuit Court has misinterpreted and accordingly misapplied (c)(1) to immunize all publishing actions including the restriction of content.
I am not the only one who recognized the redundancy of (c)(1) and (c)(2) when (c)(1) is
misinterpreted to capture any and all social media company publishing actions. It is the position of the United States of America that:
the interaction between subparagraphs (c)(1) and (c)(2) of section 230, in particular to
clarify and determine the circumstances under which a provider of an interactive
computer service that restricts access to content in a manner not specifically protected
by subparagraph (c)(2)(A) may also not be able to claim protection under subparagraph
(c)(1), which merely states that a provider shall not be treated as a publisher or speaker
for making third-party content available and does not address the provider’s
responsibility for its own editorial decisions.
The Executive Order 13925, signed on May 28, 2020, accurately pointed out that a service
provider cannot be treated as “a publisher” for providing the service on which the content is passively
hosted – if the service provider acted as “a publisher” when restricting content, it cannot claim protections
under (c)(1) for its own publishing decisions. Subsection 230(c)(1) does not protect ANY publishing actions
taken by the service provider. The moment a service provider manipulates content in any way, it
transforms into “a publisher” and is left with only (c)(2)(A) protections if, in fact, the manipulation was
done to “restrict” content (not provide content), done in good faith, voluntarily and free from monetary
motivation, among other things.
Subsection 230(c)(2) says:
No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be held liable on account
of— (A.) any action voluntarily taken in good faith to restrict access to or availability of
material that the provider or user considers to be obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy,
excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable, whether or not such material
is constitutionally protected; or (B.) any action taken to enable or make available to
information content providers or others the technical means to restrict access to
material described in paragraph (1).
The provider of the interactive computer service cannot be an information content “provider”
and still enjoy immunity in either (c)(1) or (c)(2). A service provider can only be a content “restrictor” to
maintain (c)(2)(A) protections, but it would be liable for any information it is responsible for providing
because “provision of content” is not eligible for any CDA immunity. Subsection 230(f)(3) conveniently
gives us the legal definition of what an “information content provider” is. Subsection 230(f)(3) states that
“[t]he term information content provider means any person or entity that is responsible, in whole or in
part, for the creation or development of information provided through the Internet or any other
interactive computer service.” We already know that every word of the law is important, so an
“information content provider” is “any entity… responsible… in part… for the development of information
provided online.” Being considered an “information content provider,” by legal definition, requires a low
burden or responsibility. The words “in part” make this abundantly clear.
The Ninth Circuit Court has consistently misapplied Subsection 230(c)(2) protections to capture
the actions of “a publisher” providing content “in part.” Additionally, and again, Subsection 230(c)(2)
makes absolutely no mention of content “provision,” only the restriction of materials. The courts have
been wrongly granting service providers publishing protections even if they are acting as content provider
“in part.” The Ninth Circuit Court’s position that “perhaps because they developed, even in part, the
content at issue can take advantage of subsection (c)(2)” is unequivocally false. If the service provider
developed the information (even in part), it does not receive CDA protections because it is providing, not
I purposely left creation out of this interpretation. Subsection 230(f)(3) specifically says creation
“or” development. Creation implies that information is being brought into existence. Development, on
the other hand, does not require any aspect of creation. The content at issue could be entirely created by
“another” content provider; but, if the service provider actively manipulates the content, it is responsible
(at least in part) for the development of that content and transforms a service provider into a content
provider. The courts have held that a service provider can simultaneously be a content provider.
As an example of development, if a service provider is paid to increase the availability of
information and actively provide that information to users it is responsible at least in part for the
development of that content, not the creation of that content. As another example, if a service provider
pays a partner to rate content and create additional context that the service provider makes available to
its users, it is responsible for developing that information at least in part and is not protected by sectionAs another example, if a service provider is paid to show information higher in the listing results, it is
developing that information which may have been entirely created by another and in doing so, it has
become an information content provider itself, at least in part.
The question of motivation has also arisen. Does a services provider’s motive matter when it takes
action or deliberately does not act to restrict harmful content? The Ninth Circuit Court said that, “unlike…
(c)(2)(A), nothing in 230 (c)(1) turns on the alleged motives underlying the editorial decisions of the
provider of an interactive computer service.” This is yet another misunderstanding by the courts. The title
of Title 47 United States Code Section 230 (c) says, “Protections for “Good Samaritan” blocking and
screening of offensive materials”. We believe “Good Samaritan” is specifically in quotes because the
legislature intended to emphasize the application of Good Samaritanism to any action or omission thus
230 (c)(1) and 230 (c)(2) are both subject to a measure of Good Samaritan motive. “Good Samaritan” is
very important and has been largely overlooked by the courts. To maintain “Good Samaritan” protections,
a service provider must act in good faith, without compensatory benefit, without gross negligence and
without a wanton or willful misconduct. If a service provider is acting in bad faith or for its own economic,
ideological or political motivation it certainly is not being a “Good Samaritan” and should promptly lose
its liability protections.
It is now 2020, a few monolithic technology companies dominate the entire digital landscape.
Virtually every lawsuit that has ever challenged their handling of content has been promptly dismissed by
the California Court system. Was the legislatures purpose for section 230 to protect a company from any
and all anti-trust or tort claims? Was Section 230 enacted to protect an Interactive Computer Service
Provider from any and all of its own publishing actions? Was Section 230 enacted to allow the economic,
ideological or political manipulation of information? Was its purpose to provide an anti-competitive, antipolitical, and / or anti-ideologically weapon to stifle America and control the free market?
Unfortunately, the California courts have made a mess of what should have been a fairly straight
forward law. The Supreme Court could easily resolve this mess and put an end to the bias and anti-trust
issues we face as a nation. I plan to bring all of these arguments forward to the Supreme court and suggest
a simple solution to this Gordian knot.
(1.) Acknowledge the difference between being treated as “a publisher” (its own actions) vs. being
treated as “the publisher” (the actions of another) found in 230 (c)(1).
(2.) Properly apply a measure of “Good Samaritan” to any action or omission taken by the service
(3.) Recognize that any active development of information by a service provider, whether it be
content advancement, prioritization or manipulation, even in part, instantly transforms the interactive
computer service provider into an information content provider and voids any CDA protections it may
have otherwise enjoyed.
These three clarifications would effectively fix the gross misapplication of Section 230 protections
that have historically provided technology companies cart blanche immunity.
In the words of Mark Zuckerberg himself, “I don’t think it should be up to any given company to
decide what the definition of harmful content is”. “When you give everyone a voice and give people
power, the system usually ends up in a really good place. So, what we view our role as, is giving people
Jason M. Fyk
Social Media Freedom Advocate
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