Hugh L. Stephens
Distinguished Fellow Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada Vice Chair Canadian Committee on Pacific Economic Cooperation (PECC)
Unabashed booster of—and apologist for—Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act (CDA), Eric Goldman, recently published an encomium “to help Canadians understand a crucial US law that’s become a flashpoint for heated discussions” (according to the introduction to Goldman’s article distributed by the Santa Clara University School of Law). It was initially released through the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI), a prominent Canadian think-tank at the University of Waterloo. Goldman is Associate Dean and Co-Director of the High Tech Law Institute at the university, which is located in the heart of Silicon Valley). Thanks to Goldman, we poor benighted Canadians can finally begin to fully comprehend how fortunate we are that the new NAFTA (USMCA, called CUSMA in Canada) requires each country—that is the US, Canada and Mexico—to maintain legal rules that, in Goldman’s words, “resemble Section 230”. That provision in CUSMA is Article 19.17. More on the CUSMA treaty language below. But first….
What is Section 230?
Section 230 of the CDA provides that internet intermediaries (internet platforms, websites, social media services) are not liable in civil law for content posted by users. The law was originally passed in order to provide platforms with the means to control illegal or harmful content. As I wrote in an earlier blog post (“Section 230 is Dangerous–Keep it Out of Trade Negotiations”), the problem arose because an online website, Prodigy (no longer in existence) was successfully sued because it had not moderated an online posting put up by a user that allegedly defamed the plaintiff. The court considered that because Prodigy had the ability to moderate the content and did so on occasion, (but not in this case), it was a “publisher” (like a newspaper) and was thus liable for defamation. On the other hand, other websites that made absolutely no attempt to moderate content on their platforms, whether the content was objectionable or not, were considered “distributors” and were off the hook. There was thus no incentive for online platforms to lift a finger to remove obscene, defamatory or content that would be objectionable to children, one of the early concerns about the spread of online content.
The solution was Section 230, which provided, in the words of (now Senator) Rod Wyden, one of its architects, both a sword and a shield. The sword was the ability to take down objectionable content; the shield was immunity from prosecution for doing so. However, over the years its intent has become badly distorted through a series of rulings by various US courts to the point where today the legislation is interpreted as a blanket exemption from responsibility for digital platforms for any content posted by users.
Abuses enabled by Section 230
The misapplication of Section 230 is largely responsible for a general lack of accountability on the part of internet intermediaries for any content that they host, distribute or enable, allowing them to refuse to take action against user-generated abuses. This has led to a litany of abuses without legal remedy against the platforms that turn a blind eye to, enable or even promote, harmful content such as sexual exploitation of children, illegal gambling, false and harmful information, revenge porn, hate speech and so on. It is so wide-sweeping that it has allowed services like AirBNB to thumb its nose at municipalities seeking to enforce bylaws against temporary rentals because the illegal listings were posted by users. (There are limited exceptions to platform immunity under Section 230, namely copyright infringement and, since passage of the SESTA/FOSTA legislationin 2018, sex trafficking, a carve out vigorously opposed by most of Silicon Valley).
Tech platforms love Section 230, as do those who use the content to abuse others, promote illegal activities or spread conspiracy theories. Responsible content producers would like to see some accountability on the part of the platforms. Governments too are grappling with the issue of how to prevent the internet from becoming a law-free zone and to hold businesses that profit from user-generated content to account for the content they distribute and promote.
Because of the many abuses, Section 230 has come under increasing scrutiny in the US. Ironically, when it came under attack by the Trump Administration, it was not because of lack of content moderation by the platforms, but rather because they had—finally and under extreme provocation owing to the proclivity of Trump and his supporters to stretch the truth—exercised some control over the content propagated through their services. This infuriated Trump supporters who accused the platforms of political bias and threatened to bring changes to Section 230. As I commented at the time, (“Reforming Section 230 is the Right Idea—But Not When Done in the Wrong Way for the Wrong Reasons”),
“Trump has decided to use Section 230 in order to take personal revenge on Twitter, not to reform it or to address the fundamental issues inherent in the abuse of its immunity provisions by internet intermediaries who have used it to avoid taking down clearly harmful content. By making this allegedly about “silencing conservative voices”, Trump has in effect hijacked the issue of Section 230 reform.”
Of course it didn’t happen, and for several months now we have all been spared the daily torrent of personal, misspelled, vindictive and inaccurate tweets from the former president. For now, Section 230 in the US remains unchanged.
Goldman’s “Five Things to Know”
However, Goldman and his Canadian fellow-cyberlibertarians such as Michael Geist at the University of Ottawa are big fans of Section 230. During the CUSMA negotiations, Geist joined with a number of American academics to write a letter to the chief trade negotiators of the three countries urging the inclusion of a Section 230 provision in the Agreement. He also publicly urged Canadian negotiators to cave in and give the US “a win” on this point. For Goldman and Geist and others of their ilk, Section 230 is the foundation of the internet, enabling free speech, competition, innovation, democracy and more. In his panegyric to Section 230, written for Canadians, Goldman cited “Five Things to know about Section 230”. These are;
Let’s examine these assertions and deconstruct the arguments just a bit.
With regard to internet exceptionalism, Goldman argues that although the internet is treated differently from and more favourably than other media, Congress got it right when it passed Section 230. He is happy to see the laws governing libel, defamation, hate speech and the other checks and balances that society has imposed on those who are granted the privilege to publish and disseminate information suspended when it comes to the internet. It all seems to hearken back to John Perry Barlow’s 1996 “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace”, the mantra of the Electronic Freedom Foundation, a collection of bilious assertions that the internet is beyond the regulations of governments and not subject to national laws.
The First Amendment
Does Section 230 enhance the First Amendment, the “free speech” provision in the Constitution of the United States? First, we have to ask, “does the First Amendment put any limits on free speech?” The answer is, “of course it does.” The First Amendment does not protect a number of forms of speech, such as obscenity, defamation, perjury, blackmail, incitement to unlawful action, and true threats. The courts have an important role in enforcing these reasonable limitations, but according to Goldman, Section 230 contains “important procedural advantages” that allow courts to dismiss lawsuits over third party lawsuits quickly and relatively cheaply. Put another way, Section 230 hobbles the courts from exercising their responsibility to ensure that free speech is exercised in a way that does not harm others.
Section 230 and Internet Competition
Does Section 230 enhance competition? In Goldman’s upside-down world it does because it keeps the door open to new entrants who don’t have to worry about investing resources in anything as wasteful as content moderation. And we have the proof that this policy increases competition, right? I mean, look at the robust competition that Facebook and Google have to deal with. Or did I miss something?
Is Section 230 the Law in Canada?
According to Goldman, Section 230 is sort of the law in Canada. This is because the new NAFTA (which I will call USMCA/CUSMA hereafter) contains Article 19.17 that says, in part;
“…no Party shall adopt or maintain measures that treat a supplier or user of an interactive computer service as an information content provider in determining liability for harms related to information stored, processed, transmitted, distributed, or made available by the service, except to the extent the supplier or user has, in whole or in part, created, or developed the information”.
According to Goldman, “when Canada ratified CUSMA it committed to providing Section 230-like immunity against internet service liability for third party content”.
However, in USMCA/CUSMA there is an important footnote that reads;
“a Party may comply with this Article (19.17) through its laws, regulations or application of existing legal doctrines as applied through judicial decisions”.
In other words, Canadian case law will continue to apply and there is no explicit requirement to create safe harbours in Canada for interactive service providers under this provision. I discussed this in detail at the time in a blog posting labelled “Did Canada get “Section 230” Shoved Down its Throat in the USMCA?”
Goldman argues that Section 230 is the law in Canada but, with respect, that is a highly debatable claim. It’s a brave move for a non-legal practitioner to challenge a Dean of Law at a prominent university on a point of law but even little ol’me knows that a law is not a law unless it has been enacted into legislation. In Canada that is done by an Act of Parliament. True, Canada ratified the USMCA/CUSMA and, as part of the process of so doing, introduced a package of legislative amendments (Canada–United States–Mexico Agreement Implementation Act) to effect changes to various Canadian laws as required by the CUSMA treaty. For example, as part of this legislative package, there were amendments to a variety of statutes ranging from the Fertilizers Act to the Copyright Act and Special Import Measures Act to the Customs Tariff. But were there any legislative amendments related to Article 19.17 of CUSMA? There were not. There is no new law in Canada establishing Section 230-like immunities for internet platforms—thankfully. Secondary liability continues to apply in Canada as I discussed in greater detail in here (Will Article 19.17 of the USMCA/CUSMA Influence Canadian Court Proceedings? (The Long—or Short?—Arm of Section 230).
Canada’s “commitment” in the CUSMA was carefully worded, preserving maximum flexibility for Canadian legislators and legal practitioners. I like to think that this was not an accident but by design and is a credit to the Canadian negotiating team who resisted misplaced US demands to “sign on” to Section 230.
Will Changing (“Gutting”) Section 230 Improve the internet?
Goldman argues that removing the dangerous parts of Section 230 will not improve the internet. In his view, since people have been nasty to each other for centuries, changing Section 230 to put the onus on the platforms that disseminate this personal bile won’t change anything. Yet because of the ugly side of society, we have laws to restrain this kind of behaviour in the offline world. We have laws to protect innocent victims. We impose reasonable restraints on unfettered freedom of expression and dissemination of libellous, defamatory and obscene materials everywhere—except on the internet. Goldman would like to keep it that way. He states that “Section 230 reform will accelerate the end of the Web 2.0 era”. This, apparently, will lead to a predomination of “privileged voices” and will exclude “niche non-majoritarian interests” (like those people who spread misinformation, conspiracy theories and indulge in vile personal attacks). So, yes, Professor, changing Section 230 will improve discourse on the internet.
Section 230 in the US
Apart from the attacks on Section 230 by Donald Trump and his acolytes (because the platforms finally exercised a modicum of content moderation), there have been wide criticisms of this legislation because of how it has enabled online abuse. In fact, it almost didn’t make it into the USMCA, since Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats finally woke up to what they were supporting. Pelosi tried to get the Trump Administration to drop Article 19.17 as part of the last-minute deal-making with Congress to get approval of the Agreement, but it was too late in the process. However, the Democrats did succeed in getting a statement from the hi-tech industry acknowledging that inclusion of Article 19.17 did not prevent the US from amending Section 230 in future. Advocates of Section 230 were hoping that its inclusion in the USMCA meant that it would be “baked in” forever and could not be touched by Congress. Given the tepid support in Congress for Section 230, Goldman is right to conclude that even if Canada did not abide by Article 19.17 by passing future legislation that negated it, the US would be most unlikely to object. In fact, he admitted as much in a podcast with Michael Geist that I wrote about earlier this year when he said, with respect to Congressional intentions to modify Section 230 despite Article 19.17 of the USMCA;
“Congress will absolutely blast forward with efforts to tinker with Section 230 even if that would also contravene the USMCA…I don’t know who really plans to abide by it, and if no-one plans to abide by it, I don’t understand what the point was”.
The Future of Section 230
How true. So why the primer on Section 230 just for Canadians? It is not part of the corpus of Canadian law, it is an outdated provision that is in serious need of revision in its homeland, the US, and it is not going to constrain the Canadian government from holding internet platforms responsible for online harms that they distribute if they fail to takedown such material when notified. Eric Goldman, Michael Geist and their friends in the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) can continue to beat the Section 230 drum, but that drumbeat is sounding increasingly hollow, in Canada as in the US. Let Section 230 stay where it is in Canada, effectively buried.