The following is Section II.A of the comment I submitted in the Copyright Office’s study on the operation of Section 512 of the copyright statute.
Congress in the 1990s may not have been able to predict the growth of the Internet, but it could see the direction it was taking and the value it had the potential to deliver. We see this recognition first baked into the statutory language of 47 U.S.C. Section 230 (“Section 230”), a 1996 statute that provides unequivocal immunity for service providers that intermediate content from other users:
Congress finds the following: [that t]he rapidly developing array of Internet and other interactive computer services available to individual Americans represent an extraordinary advance in the availability of educational and informational resources to our citizens[; that t]hese services offer users a great degree of control over the information that they receive, as well as the potential for even greater control in the future as technology develops[; that t]he Internet and other interactive computer services offer a forum for a true diversity of political discourse, unique opportunities for cultural development, and myriad avenues for intellectual activity[; that t]he Internet and other interactive computer services have flourished, to the benefit of all Americans, with a minimum of government regulation[; and that i]ncreasingly Americans are relying on interactive media for a variety of political, educational, cultural, and entertainment services.
It was therefore the policy of the United States to, among other things, “promote the continued development of the Internet and other interactive computer services and other interactive media” and “to preserve the vibrant and competitive free market that presently exists for the Internet and other interactive computer services, unfettered by Federal or State regulation.”
As the Notice of Inquiry soliciting comment for this study noted, Congress was still of the same view about the importance of the Internet two years later when it passed the DMCA explicitly to help “foster the continued development of electronic commerce and the growth of the Internet.” As per an accompanying Senate Report, “The ‘Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998’ is designed to facilitate the robust development and world-wide expansion of electronic commerce, communications, research, development, and education in the digital age.” As the Report continued, Congress was going to achieve this end by protecting intermediaries, observing that, “[B]y limiting the liability of service providers, the DMCA ensures that the efficiency of the Internet will continue to improve and that the variety and quality of services on the Internet will continue to expand.”
At no time since then has Congress fundamentally changed its view on the value of the Internet. Nor should it. In these nearly twenty years we have seen countless businesses and jobs be added to the economy, innumerable examples of pioneering technology be innovated, myriad new markets previously unimaginable be created (including many for those in the arts and sciences to economically exploit), and enormous value returned to the economy. By protecting online service providers we have changed the world and brought the democratic promise of information and knowledge sharing to bear. It is therefore absolutely critical that we not create law that interferes with this promise. If anything, we should take this opportunity to reduce the costly friction that the more inapt portions of the existing law have been imposing instead.