Groups oppose proposed change to Internet content 'safe harbor'

A proposed change to U.S. law that would allow state attorneys general to hold websites liable for content posted by users is a “dangerous path,” a group of tech trade groups and legal scholars said Wednesday.

A proposal by a group of state attorneys general to modify the so-called safe harbor provision in section 230 of the Communications Decency Act “would jeopardize the continued growth of the entire Internet industry and the free expression rights of Internet users everywhere,” the groups said in a letter to top U.S. lawmakers.

Section 230 of the law broadly protects Internet publishers and service providers from responsibility for user-generated content on their sites. But in June, a group of state attorneys general proposed a change to the law that would allow prosecution of publishers in cases where user-posted content violates state law.

Federal prosecutors now can hold web publishers liable in cases involving federal criminal law, intellectual property law, and electronic communications privacy law, and the state attorneys general want the same authority.

But those signing Wednesday’s letter—including the Center for Democracy and Technology, NetChoice, Public Knowledge and the Internet Association—said the proposed change is a bad idea. Twenty-three trade groups and other organizations signed the letter, along with 19 legal scholars.

The attorneys general proposal “would replace the certainty that Section 230 provides with open-ended legal risk,” the letter said. “By hosting third-party content, online service providers would expose themselves to potential prosecution under literally thousands of criminal statutes on a state-by-state basis. Keeping up with the thicket of state criminal laws would be a significant burden, especially for start-ups and smaller companies, and the risk of liability would create a strong incentive for companies to minimize or avoid interactive features and user-generated content.”

Supporters of the proposal have argued that section 230 discourages websites from policing their content, including, at some sites, ads for underage prostitution. Large Internet companies no longer need the protections, supporters have argued.

Attorney General Marty Jackley of South Dakota argued in June that in section 230, “you’ve essentially given these guys immunity” when state criminal laws are broken.

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