While I was working on this post Eric Goldman beat me to the punch and posted something similar. But great minds and all that… Intermediary liability is also such a crucial issue related to the criminalization of online content I want to make sure plenty of discussion on it takes place here.
In addition to the First Amendment, in the US free speech on the Internet is also advanced by 47 U.S.C. Section 230, an important law that generally serves to immunize web hosts for liability in user generated content. (See Section 230(c)(1): “No provider . . . of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”). Note that this law doesn’t absolve the content of any intrinsic liability; it just means that the host can’t be held liable for it. Only the user who posted it can be.
This small rule has a big impact: if hosts could be held liable for everything their users’ posted, they would be forced to police and censor it. True, the effect of this immunity means that sometimes some vile content can make its way online and linger there, potentially harmfully. But it also means that by not forcing hosts to be censorious middlemen, they are not finding themselves tempted to kill innocuous, or even abjectly good, content. As a result all sorts of vibrant communities and useful information have been able to take root on the Web.
But for this immunity to really be meaningful, it’s not enough that it protect the host from a final award on damages. It’s extremely expensive to have to be dragged into court at all. If hosts legitimately fear needing to go through the judicial process to answer for users’ content, they may find it more worth their while to become censorious middlemen with respect to that content, in order to ensure they never need go down this road.
Which brings us to Fair Housing Council of San Fernando v. Roommates.com, both its seminal piece of Section 230 jurisprudence and its more recent epilogue, each part of the attempted civil prosecution of a web host for fair housing act violations.