Recently, an obscure provision of the Communications Act has been thrust into the limelight. Section 230 is now discussed nearly daily on talk shows and in newspapers, and is gaining increasing criticism from the courts. The result of this attention is that Congress is now working on reforming Section 230, with a bevy of bills proposed that could dramatically affect the free and open Internet, with the consequences difficult to predict.
First, as a bit of background, Section 230 has two main subsections. The first subsection is direct:
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.
47 U.S.C. § 230(c)(1). In the words of the Fourth Circuit, Section 230 “creates a federal immunity to any cause of action that would make service providers liable for information originating with a third-party user of the service. Specifically, § 230 precludes courts from entertaining claims that would place a computer service provider in a publisher’s role. Thus, lawsuits seeking to hold a service provider liable for its exercise of a publisher’s traditional editorial functions—such as deciding whether to publish, withdraw, postpone or alter content—are barred.” Zeran v. Am. Online, Inc., 129 F.3d 327, 330 (4th Cir. 1997).