Proposal to make websites liable for its user comments faces opposition

A proposal to make websites liable when user-generated comments violate state laws would be disaster for many popular online destinations, according to e-commerce trade group NetChoice.

A proposal by state attorneys general group the National Association of Attorneys General (NAAG) to amend the Communications Decency Act would open up popular sites like Facebook, Yelp, and Reddit to criminal prosecution of state laws, including libel and defamation laws, NetChoice said Thursday in its periodic release of its Internet Advocates Watchlist of Ugly Laws (iAWFUL) list.

The proposed change in Section 230—the safe harbor provision—of the 1996 Communications Decency Act would remove legal protections for websites from state prosecutions for comments site users make. It’s possible, NetChoice said, that websites could then face criminal prosecution for “archaic” defamation laws, including a Georgia law prohibits speech that “blackened the memory” of a state native or a Louisiana law that prohibits showing “contempt” for a resident.

“That liability protection unleashed the development of sites like Facebook, Reddit, WordPress and many others that enable user-generated content,” NetChoice said in a blog post earlier this month. “The whole Web 2.0 revolution was premised on innovators being allowed to provide technical platforms without fear that they would be held legally responsible for all of the words and actions of anyone using their platforms.”

Possible effects of proposed change

The NAAG proposal, advanced at the group’s June meeting, would remove website protection for user comments violating any state criminal law, said Steve DelBianco, NetChoice’s executive director. Across the U.S., there are about 27,000 local sheriffs who can enforce state libel laws, he said by email.

“There’s a good chance one of these sheriffs will want to defend a local restaurant or inn from a scathing review posted on Yelp, and the [NAAG] amendment would allow Yelp to be liable for someone else’s review,” he said.

A NAAG spokeswoman declined to comment on NetChoice’s iAWFUL list, but Attorney General Marty Jackley of South Dakota said in June that the current wording of Section 230 has “essentially given these guys immunity” when state criminal laws are broken.

Not all state officials are in favor of changing the law. North Dakota State Representative Blair Thoreson, a Fargo Republican leading a multistate task force on technology issues, has distributed a resolution opposing the proposed change.

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