Know Your Law: Section 230 Safe Harbors

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Know Your Law is a new bi-weekly feature here on GeekTech, where I explain laws that directly affect how you use the internet in language that doesn’t require a law degree. This week’s law comes from Title 47, Chapter 5, Subchapter 2, Part 1 of the U.S. Code.

Section 230 is a part of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which itself is a part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. The Communications Decency Act was an attempt to protect children by regulating pornography and obscenity on the Internet, among other things. While the provisions regarding obscenity on the Internet were struck down by the Supreme Court’s decision in Reno v. ACLU, Section 230 has stuck, and remains in place to this day.

The key part of Section 230 is as follows: “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.” What that means is that service providers aren’t liable for the things their users say. If someone defamed me on Twitter, thanks to Section 230, I can’t sue Twitter over what was said, because of the “safe harbor” created by the law.

Why is Section 230 important? It helps promote free speech on the internet. As the law stands right now, service providers can’t get sued for what their users say, so they have no incentive to try to limit the speech of their users. However, if the protections provided by Section 230 were not in place, then ISPs, social networks and other places where people can speak their mind on the internet would need to police what their users were saying in order to attempt to minimize the possibility of getting sued.

Something important to note about this law: Though it absolves service providers from liability for what their users have said, it doesn’t mean that you’re not responsible for what you say on the internet. Using the example from earlier, while I can’t sue Twitter for someone posting defamatory content about me, I can sue the person who posted that content.

If you’re interested in reading more about Section 230, the Electronic Frontier Foundation has a great document on how the law pertains to bloggers, and Wikipedia has a fairly comprehensive list of important cases pertaining to the law as well as analogues in other countries.

DISCLAIMER: This story is not intended to provide legal advice of any kind, and should not be construed as legal advice.

[Photo: Tracie7779 on Flickr; used under Creative Commons]

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