Intermediary Deputization & Section 230

The success of the Internet and the modern digital economy was due to its open, generative nature, driven by the ethos of “permissionless innovation.” A “light-touch” policy regime helped make this possible. Of particular legal importance was the immunization of online intermediaries from punishing forms of liability associated with the actions of third parties.

As “software eats the world” and the digital revolution extends its reach to the physical world, policymakers should extend similar legal protections to other “generative” tools and platforms, such as robotics, 3D printing, and virtual reality.

In other words, we need a Section 230 for the “maker” movement. Continue reading →

The FCC’s Open Internet Order is long and complex and the challenge to it is likewise difficult to untangle. The agency regularly engages in ad hoc rulemaking that results, per Judge Posner, in “unprincipled compromises of Rube Goldberg complexity among contending interest groups viewed merely as clamoring suppliants who have somehow to be conciliated.” The Open Internet Order is no exception and therefore faces several legal vulnerabilities.

In my view, the soft underbelly of the Order is the agency’s position that ISPs are not First Amendment speakers. While courts are generally very deferential to agencies, they are not deferential on constitutional questions. Further, the court panel (two Democrat appointees, one Republican appointee), unfortunately, was not in the carriers’ favor. The major carriers, however, have focused their arguments on whether the agency should receive deference in classifying Internet access as a telecommunications service.

That said, it’s possible the major carriers could get at least a partial win with their arguments. That likelihood is increased because Alamo Broadband and Dan Berninger raised the First Amendment problems with the Order. Given the strength of the First Amendment arguments, the Court might shy away from reaching the issue of whether ISPs are speakers. Below, some thoughts on the moments during oral arguments that surprised me and what went according to predictions.

The Unexpected

A receptive ear in Judge Williams re: the First Amendment arguments. (Good for: ISPs) The First Amendment arguments went better than I’d expected. Alamo and Berninger’s counsel, Brett Shumate, argued the First Amendment issues well and had good responses for skeptical questions. Shumate found a receptive ear in Judge Williams, who seemed to understand the serious First Amendment risks posed by the Order. Williams repeatedly brought up the fact that MetroPCS a few years ago tried to curate the Internet and provide its customers free YouTube, only to face resistance from the FCC and net neutrality activists.

The other two judges were more skeptical but Shumate corrected some misconceptions. The biggest substantive objection from Srinivasan, who sounded the most skeptical of the First Amendment arguments, was that if the Court reaches the First Amendment issues, it has determined that the FCC has reasonably classified Internet access as a common carrier service. He suggested that this means the First Amendment issues mostly disappear. No, Shumate explained. Congress and the FCC can call services whatever they want. They could declare Google Search or Twitter feeds a common carrier service tomorrow and that would have zero effect on whether filtering by Google and Twitter is protected by the First Amendment. Tatel asked whether Section 230’s liability protections suggest ISPs are common carriers and Shumate corrected that misconception, a subject I have written on before.

A major FCC concession that ISPs have to option to change their offerings and escape common carrier regulation. (Good for: ISPs) Title II advocates are spinning the terse First Amendment exchanges as a victory. I’m not convinced. The reason the arguments didn’t generate more heat was because the FCC lawyer made a huge concession at the outset: ISPs that choose to filter the Internet are not covered by the Open Internet Order.

FCC lawyer: “If [ISPs] want to curate the Internet…that would drop them out of the definition of Broadband Internet Access Service.”

Judge Williams: “They have that option under the Order?”

FCC lawyer: “Absolutely, your Honor. …If they filter the Internet and don’t provide access to all or substantially all endpoints, then they drop out of the definition of [BIAS] and the rules don’t apply to them.”

This admission seriously undermines the purposes of the Order. The FCC is stating outright that ISPs have the option to filter and to avoid the rules. That seems to mean that Comcast’s Stream Internet protocol television service, where it is curating streaming TV programs, is not covered by the rules. If Facebook’s Free Basics or a similar service launched in the US giving free, limited access to the Web, that is not covered by the Order. Finally, this means that the many broadband packages that offer family-friendly filtering are outside of the FCC’s rules. It’s not clear how much remains to be regulated since all ISPs reserve the right to filter content and each filters at least some content.

Judge Tatel directing most questioning. (Good for: wash) Many view Judge Tatel as the “swing vote” but I was surprised at the relative quiet from Williams and Srinivasan. Tatel was the most inquisitive, by my listening. He was much more skeptical of some of the FCC’s arguments regarding interconnection than I expected but also more skeptical of the First Amendment arguments than I expected.

Little discussion of Chevron Step 0. (Good for: FCC) Many on the free-market side wanted to make this case about Chevron Step 0 and the notion that Title II is too economically and socially significant to warrant deference. Unfortunately, at oral argument there was very little discussion of Chevron Step 0.

The Expected

Focus on agency discretion. (Good for: FCC) The judges generally seem to see this as a straightforward Chevron case and the questions focused on Chevron Step 1, whether there is ambiguity in the statute about “offering telecommunications” for the FCC to interpret. As expected, the FCC did fairly well in their arguments because these technical issues are very hard to untangle.

On Chevron Step 2, whether the reinterpretation of “telecommunications service” to include Internet access was reasonable, the US Telecom attorney was strong. He leaned heavily on the fact that in Section 230, which amends the Communications Act, Congress announces a national policy that the Internet and specifically Internet access services, should remain “unfettered by Federal regulation.” That would seem to preclude the FCC from using, at the very least, its most powerful regulatory weapon–common carriage–against Internet access providers. Even if “telecommunications service” is ambiguous, he stated, it was unreasonable to include Internet access in that definition.

Focus on whether mobile broadband can be properly classified under Title II. (Benefit: ISPs) As many commentators have noted, the idea that the traditional phone network and the mobile broadband network can be classified as the same interconnected network is far-fetched. Each judge seemed very skeptical of the FCC’s argument and Tatel suggested there was a lack of adequate notice.

Srinivasan pointed out that striking down the wireless rules and maintaining the wireline rules would mean that using the same tablet in different areas of your house would lead to different regulatory treatment, depending on whether you’re on the cellular broadband network or Wifi. Title II supporters think this is pretty clever gotcha but communications law already abounds with seemingly absurd FCC- and court-created legal distinctions. (The FCC invents its own absurd distinction and offers vastly different regulatory treatment for DNS operated by an ISP v. DNS operated by literally anyone else.)


Predictions about major regulatory cases are notoriously difficult. I’ve read (and made) enough predictions about big court cases to know that prognosticators almost always get it wrong. If that’s the case, at least consider one thought-provoking outcome: the rules are largely struck down because the FCC provided inadequate notice on most of the major issues of classification.

If the rules, in contrast, were sustained under Chevron and judged to have had adequate notice, the Court would likely need to confront the First Amendment issues. I don’t think Tatel and Srinivasan, especially, want to rule on these hard constitutional questions. The judges must know the Supreme Court has, as Prof. Susan Crawford says, an “absolutist approach” to the First Amendment that protects speakers of all kinds. Sustaining the rules means the FCC risks a loss on First Amendment grounds on appeal that would nearly eliminate the ability of the FCC to regulate the Internet. For that reason, and because of the notice problems, the Court may strike down the rules on notice and comment grounds, thereby preserving the ability of the FCC to take a fourth bite at the apple.

As FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said of the Internet, “It is our printing press.” Unfortunately, for First Amendment purposes, regulators and courts treat our modern printing presses — electronic media — very differently from the traditional ones. Therefore, there is persistent political and activist pressure on regulators to rule that Internet intermediaries — like social networks and search engines — are not engaging in constitutionally-protected speech.

Most controversial is the idea that, as content creators and curators, Internet service providers are speakers with First Amendment rights. The FCC’s 2015 Open Internet Order designates ISPs as common carriers and generally prohibits ISPs from blocking Internet content. The agency asserts outright that ISPs “are not speakers.” These Title II rules may be struck down on procedural grounds, but the First Amendment issues pose a significant threat to the new rules.

ISPs are Speakers
Courts and Congress, as explained below, have long recognized that ISPs possess editorial discretion. Extensive ISP filtering was much more common in the 1990s but still exists today. Take JNet and DNet. These ISPs block large portions of Internet content that may violate religious principles. They also block neutral services like gaming and video if the subscriber wishes. JNet offers several services, including DSL Internet access, and markets itself to religious Jews. It is server-based (not client-based) and offers several types of filters, including application-based blocking, blacklists, and whitelists. Similarly, DNet, targeted mostly to Christian families in the Carolinas, offers DSL and wireless server-based filtering of content like pornography and erotic material. A strict no-blocking rule on the “last mile” access connection, which most net neutrality proponents want enforced, would prohibit these types of services. Continue reading →

It’s been over five years since Congress passed major legislation addressing copyright protection, but this hasn’t stopped copyright owners from achieving real progress in securing their expressive works. In cooperation with private-sector stakeholders, rights holders have made several deals aimed at combating copyright infringement and channeling consumer demand for original content toward legitimate outlets. These voluntary agreements will be the subject of a hearing this afternoon (9/18) before the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property and the Internet. This panel marks the latest in a series of hearings the committee launched earlier this year to review the Copyright Act, much of which dates back to 1976 or earlier.

Copyright consensus may sound like an oxymoron, especially in the wake of last year’s bruising legislative battle over SOPA and PIPA. But in reality, there’s no shortage of common ground when it comes to copyright protection. Despite all the controversy that surrounds the issue, copyright isn’t so much a “conflict of visions”, to borrow from Thomas Sowell, but a conflict of tactics, as I argued earlier this year on Cato Unbound.

Indeed, with some notable exceptions, most scholars, business leaders, and policymakers accept that government has a legitimate and important role in securing to inventors and creators the fruits of their labors“. Unsurprisingly, the devil is in the details, where genuinely tough questions arise regarding the government’s proper role in policing the Internet for copyright violations. Should the law hold online intermediaries accountable for their users’ infringing acts? What remedies should the law afford rights holders whose works are unlawfully distributed all over the Internet, often by profit-generating foreign actors?

Continue reading →

Andrew Orlowski of The Register (U.K.) recently posted a very interesting essay making the case for treating online copyright and privacy as essentially the same problem in need of the same solution: increased property rights. In his essay (“‘Don’t break the internet’: How an idiot’s slogan stole your privacy“), he argues that, “The absence of permissions on our personal data and the absence of permissions on digital copyright objects are two sides of the same coin. Economically and legally they’re an absence of property rights – and an insistence on preserving the internet as a childlike, utopian world, where nobody owns anything, or ever turns a request down. But as we’ve seen, you can build things like libraries with permissions too – and create new markets.” He argues that “no matter what law you pass, it won’t work unless there’s ownership attached to data, and you, as the individual, are the ultimate owner. From the basis of ownership, we can then agree what kind of rights are associated with the data – eg, the right to exclude people from it, the right to sell it or exchange it – and then build a permission-based world on top of that.”

And so, he concludes, we should set aside concerns about Internet regulation and information control and get down to the business of engineering solutions that would help us property-tize both intangible creations and intangible facts about ourselves to better shield our intellectual creations and our privacy in the information age. He builds on the thoughts of Mark Bide, a tech consultant:

For Bide, privacy and content markets are just a technical challenges that need to be addressed intelligently.”You can take two views,” he told me. “One is that every piece of information flowing around a network is a good thing, and we should know everything about everybody, and have no constraints on access to it all.” People who believe this, he added, tend to be inflexible – there is no half-way house. “The alternative view is that we can take the technology to make privacy and intellectual property work on the network. The function of copyright is to allow creators and people who invest in creation to define how it can be used. That’s the purpose of it. “So which way do we want to do it?” he asks. “Do we want to throw up our hands and do nothing? The workings of a civilised society need both privacy and creator’s rights.”  But this a new way of thinking about things: it will be met with cognitive dissonance. Copyright activists who fight property rights on the internet and have never seen a copyright law they like, generally do like their privacy. They want to preserve it, and will support laws that do. But to succeed, they’ll need to argue for stronger property rights. They have yet to realise that their opponents in the copyright wars have been arguing for those too, for years. Both sides of the copyright “fight” actually need the same thing. This is odd, I said to Bide. How can he account for this irony? “Ah,” says Bide. “Privacy and copyright are two things nobody cares about unless it’s their own privacy, and their own copyright.”

These are important insights that get at a fundamental truth that all too many people ignore today: At root, most information control efforts are related and solutions for one problem can often be used to address others. But there’s another insight that Orlowski ignores: Whether we are discussing copyright, privacy, online speech and child safety, or cybersecurity, all these efforts to control the free flow of digitized bits over decentralized global networks will be increasingly complex, costly, and riddled with myriad unintended consequences. Importantly, that is true whether you seek to control information flows through top-down administrative regulation or by assigning and enforcing property rights in intellectual creations or private information.

Let me elaborate a bit (and I apologize for the rambling mess of rant that follows).

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In the ongoing debate over SOPA, PIPA, and rogue websites legislation, most commentators have focused on what Congress should and shouldn’t do to combat these sites. Less attention, however, has been paid to the underlying assumption that these rogue websites represent a public policy problem. While no one has defended websites that defraud consumers by deceptively selling them fake pharmaceuticals and other counterfeit goods, many consumers who frequent “rogue websites” do so for the express purpose of downloading copyright infringing content.

As Julian Sanchez explains over on Cato-at-Liberty, how the latter category of rogue websites (including The Pirate Bay and, until last week, MegaUpload) affects the U.S. economy and social welfare is hotly contested in the economic literature:

[I]t’s become an indisputable premise in Washington that there’s an enormous piracy problem, that it’s having a devastating impact on U.S. content industries, and that some kind of aggressive new legislation is needed tout suite to stanch the bleeding. Despite the fact that the [GAO] recently concluded that it is “difficult, if not impossible, to quantify the net effect of counterfeiting and piracy on the economy as a whole,” our legislative class has somehow determined that . . . this is an urgent priority. Obviously, there’s quite a lot of copyrighted material circulating on the Internet without authorization, and other things equal, one would like to see less of it. But does the best available evidence show that this is inflicting such catastrophic economic harm—that it is depressing so much output, and destroying so many jobs—that Congress has no option but to Do Something immediately? Bearing the GAO’s warning in mind, the data we do have doesn’t remotely seem to justify the DEFCON One rhetoric that now appears to be obligatory on the Hill. The International Intellectual Property Alliance . . . actually paints a picture of industries that, far from being “killed” by piracy, are already weathering a harsh economic climate better than most, and have far outperformed the overall U.S. economy through the current recession.

Julian makes several great points, and his essay is well worth reading in its entirety.

Nevertheless, in my view, rogue websites dedicated to the infringement of U.S. copyrights pose a public policy problem that merits not only serious congressional attention, but also prompt (albeit prudent) legislative action. While I’m relieved that the flawed SOPA and PIPA bills seem unlikely to pass in their current forms, I also think it would be unwise for Congress to dither on rogue sites legislation for years in search of “credible data” about how such sites impact our economy.

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Over at, I write that while Congress mulls an Internet blacklist in SOPA, there are efforts underway to reengineer parts of the Net to make communications more decentralized and censorship-proof. These include distributed and decentralized DNS systems, currencies, and social networks, as well as attempts to circumvent ISPs using mesh networking.

>It’s not a certainty that these projects will all succeed. Most probably won’t. Yet these far-out efforts serve as proof-of-concept for a censorship-resistant Internet. Just as between Napster and BitTorrent there was Gnutella and Freenet, it will take time for these concepts to mature. What is certain is the trend. The more governments squeeze the Internet in an attempt to control information, the more it will turn to sand around their fingers.

Read the whole thing here.

The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), a controversial bill before the House of Representatives aimed at combating “rogue websites,” isn’t just about criminal, foreign-based sites that break U.S. intellectual property laws with impunity. Few dispute that these criminal websites that profit from large-scale counterfeiting and copyright infringement are a public policy problem. SOPA’s provisions, however, extend beyond these criminal sites, and would potentially subject otherwise law-abiding Internet intermediaries to serious legal risks.

Before moving forward with rogue websites legislation, it’s crucial that lawmakers take a deep breath and appreciate the challenges at stake in legislating online intermediary liability, lest we endanger the Nozickian “utopia of utopias” that is today’s Internet. The unintended consequences of overbroad, carelessly drafted legislation in this space could be severe, particularly given the Internet’s incredible importance to the global economy, as my colleagues have explained on these pages (123456)

To understand why SOPA could be a game-changer for online service providers, it’s important to understand the simmering disagreement surrounding the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) of 1998, which grants certain online service providers a safe harbor from liability for their users’ copyright infringing actions. In exchange for these protections, service providers must comply with the DMCA’s notice-and-takedown system, adopt a policy to terminate users who repeatedly infringe, and meet several other conditions. Service providers are only eligible for this safe harbor if they act to expeditiously remove infringing materials upon learning of them. Also ineligible for the safe harbor are online service providers who turn a blind eye to “red flags” of obvious infringement.

The DMCA does not, however, require providers to monitor their platforms for infringing content or design their services to facilitate monitoring. Courts have held that a DMCA-compliant service provider does not lose its safe harbor protection if it fails to act upon generalized knowledge that its service is used for many infringing activities, in addition to lawful ones, so long as the service provider does not induce or encourage users’ infringing activities.

Defenders of the DMCA safe harbor argue that it’s helped enable America’s Internet-based economy to flourish, allowing an array of web businesses built around lawful user-generated content — including YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter — to thrive without fear of copyright liability or burdensome monitoring mandates.

Conversely, some commentators, including UCLA’s Doug Lichtman, argue that the DMCA inefficiently tips the scales in favor of service providers, to the detriment of content creators — and, ultimately, consumer welfare. Pointing to a series of court rulings interpreting the safe harbor’s provisions, critics argue that the DMCA gives online intermediaries little incentive to do anything beyond the bare minimum to stop copyright infringement. Critics further allege that the safe harbor has been construed so broadly that it shields service providers that are deliberately indifferent to their users’ infringing activities, however rampant they may be.

What does SOPA have to do with all of this? Buried in the bill’s 78 pages are several provisions that run a very real risk of effectively sidestepping many of the protections conferred on online service providers by the DMCA safe harbor.

Continue reading →

This afternoon the Stop Online Piracy Act (H.R. 3261) was introduced by Rep. Lamar Smith of the House Judiciary Committee. This bill is a companion to the PROTECT IP Act and S.978, both of which were reported by the Senate Judiciary Committee in May.

There’s a lot some to like about the bill, but I’m uneasy about some quite a few of its provisions. While I’ll have plenty to say about this bill in the future, for now, here are a few preliminary thoughts:

  • The bill’s definition of “foreign infringing sites” at p. 10 borrows heavily from 18 U.S.C. § 2323, covering any site that commits or facilitates the commission of criminal copyright infringement and would be subject to civil forfeiture if it were U.S.-based. Unfortunately, the outer bounds of 18 U.S.C. § 2323 are quite unclear. The statute, which was enacted only a few years ago, encompasses “any property used, or intended to be used, in any manner or part to commit or facilitate” criminal copyright infringement. While I’m all for shutting down websites operated by criminal enterprises, not all websites used to facilitate crimes are guilty of wrongdoing. Imagine a user commits criminal copyright infringement using a foreign video sharing site similar to YouTube, but the site is unaware of the infringement. Since the site is “facilitating” criminal copyright infringement, albeit unknowingly, is it subject to the Stop Online Piracy Act?
  • Section 103 of the bill, which creates a DMCA-like notification/counter-notification regime, appears to lack any provision encouraging ad networks and payment processors to restore service to a site allegedly “dedicated to theft of U.S. property” upon receipt of a valid counter-notification and when no civil action has been brought. The DMCA contains a safe harbor protecting service providers who take reasonable steps to take down content from liability, but the safe harbor only applies if service providers promptly restore allegedly infringing content upon receipt of a counter notification and when the rights holder does not initiate a civil action. Why doesn’t H.R. 3261 include a similar provision?
  • The bill’s private right of action closely resembles that found in the PROTECT IP Act. Affording rights holders a legal avenue to take action against rogue websites makes sense, but I’m uneasy about creating a private right of action that allows courts to issue such broad preliminary injunctions against allegedly infringing sites. I’m also concerned about the lack of a “loser pays” provision.
  • Section 104 of the bill, which provides immunity for entities that take voluntary actions against infringing sites, now excludes from its safe harbor actions that are not “consistent with the entity’s terms of service or other contractual rights.” This is a welcome change and alleviates concerns I expressed about the PROTECT IP Act essentially rendering certain private contracts unenforceable.
  • Section 201 of the bill makes certain public performances via electronic means a felony. The section contains a rule of construction at p. 60 that clarifies that intentional copying is not “willful” if it’s based on a good faith belief with a reasonable basis in law that the copying is lawful. Could this provision cause courts to revisit the willfulness standard discussed in United States v. Moran, in which a federal court found that a defendant charged with criminal copyright infringement was not guilty because he (incorrectly) thought his conduct was permitted by the Copyright act?

Over the weekend, Janet Morrissey of The New York Times posted an excellent article on the U.S. government’s continuing crackdown on Internet gambling. (“Poker Inc. to Uncle Sam: Shut Up and Deal“) Ironically, her article arrives on the same week during which PBS aired the terrific new Ken Burns and Lynn Novick documentary on the history of alcohol prohibition in the United States. It’s a highly-recommended look at the utter hypocrisy and futility of prohibiting a product that millions of people find enjoyable. If there’s a simple moral to the story of Prohibition, it’s that you can’t repress human nature–not for long, at least, and not without serious unintended consequences. Which is why Morrissey of the Times notes:

And so the poker world now finds itself in a situation many liken to Prohibition. America didn’t stop drinking when the government outlawed alcoholic beverages in 1919. And, in this Internet age, it won’t be easy to prevent people from gambling online, whatever the government says. “It’s a game of whack-a-mole,” says Behnam Dayanim, an expert on online gambling and a partner at the Axinn Veltrop & Harkrider law firm. “They’ve whacked three very large moles, but over time, more moles will pop up.”

Exactly right (except that it should be “whac” not “whack”! There’s no K in whac-a-mole.)  It reminds me of the paper that my blogging colleague Tom Bell penned back in 1999 for the Cato Institute with its perfect title: “Internet Gambling: Popular, Inexorable, and (Eventually) Legal.” As Tom noted back then: Continue reading →