The Future of Sec. 230 and Online Immunity: My Debate with Harvard’s John Palfrey

by on March 6, 2009 · 11 comments

Ars Technica has just posted the transcript of a friendly debate I recently engaged in with Harvard University law professor John Palfrey about the future of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act and online liability more generally.  Our debate got started last fall, shortly after I penned a favorable review of John’s excellent new book (with Urs Gasser), Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives.  [Listen to my podcast with John about it here.]  Although I enjoyed John’s book, I also raised some concerns about his call in the book to reopen and revise Section 230, specifically to address child safety concerns.  At the time, John and I were working together on the Berkman Center’s “Internet Safety Technical Task Force” and we decided to begin an e-mail exchange about the future of 230 and online liability norms more generally.  The result was the debate that Ars has just published.

In our exchange, I begin by asking John to more fully develop some statements and proposals he sets forth in Born Digital.  Specifically, he and co-author Urs Gasser argue that: “The scope of the immunity the CDA provides for online service providers is too broad” and that the law “should not preclude parents from bringing a claim of negligence against [a social networking site] for failing to protect the safety of its users.” They also suggest that “There is no reason why a social network should be protected from liability related to the safety of young people simply because its business operates online.” Specifically, the call for “strengthening private causes of action by clarifying that tort claims may be brought against online service providers when safety is at stake,” although they do not define those instances.

Using those proposals as a launching point for our discussion, I challenge John as follows:

I’m troubled by your proposals because I believe Section 230 has been crucial to the success of the Internet and the robust marketplace of online freedom of speech and expression. In many ways — whether intentional or not — Section 230 was the legal cornerstone that gave rise to many of the online freedoms we enjoy today. I fear that the proposal you have set forth could reverse that. It could lead to crushing liability for many online operators-and not just giants like MySpace or Facebook-that might not be able to absorb the litigation costs. Could you elaborate a bit more about your proposal and explain why you think the time has come to alter Section 230 and online liability norms?

And John does and then we go back-and-forth from there.  Again, you can read the whole exchange over at Ars.

It was a great pleasure to engage in this exchange with Prof. Palfrey and I look forward to what others have to say in response to our debate.  I am working on a longer paper looking broadly at the rising threats to Sec. 230 and the increasing calls for expanded online liability and middleman deputization.  I will use whatever feedback I get from this exchange to refine my paper and proposals.

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