The following was posted on Project-Disco.org earlier this week:
What would the Internet be without its intermediaries? Nothing, that’s what. Intermediaries are what carry, store, and serve every speck of information that makes up the Internet. Every cat picture, every YouTube comment, every Wikipedia article. Every streamed video, every customer review, every online archive. Every blog post, every tweet, every Facebook status. Every e-business, every search engine, every cloud service. No part of what we have come to take the Internet for exists without some site, server, or system intermediating that content so that we all can access it.
And yet, if we’re not careful, we can easily lose all the benefits these intermediaries bring us. Thankfully, in the United States we have some laws that help ensure they can exist, chief among them 47 U.S.C. Section 230. As my recent paper on the state of the law regarding intermediary liability explains, this law stands for the proposition that intermediaries are only responsible for what they themselves communicate through their systems – not what others use them to say. For example, newspapers that post articles online are only responsible for the content of the articles they publish, not the comments readers then post to them. Similarly consumer review sites are only responsible for the information they supply to their sites, not the user reviews themselves. This same principle also means that people who link to content (as search engines do) are not legally responsible for that content, even if that content should happen to be illegal in some way (like by being potentially defamatory).
The reason Section 230 has been so helpful in allowing the Internet to thrive and become this increasingly rich resource is that by relieving intermediaries of liability for the content passing through their systems it has allowed for much more, and much more diverse, content to take root on them than there would have been had intermediaries felt it necessary to police every byte that passed through their systems out of the fear that if they didn’t, and the wrong bit got through, an expensive lawsuit could be just around the corner. Because of that fear, even if those bits and bytes did not actually comprise anything illegal intermediaries would still be tempted to over-censor or even outright prohibit scads of content, no matter how valuable that content might actually be.