Friday, April 9, 2021
Shannon Costa and I have posted to SSRN Incorporating an Actual Malice Exception to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. The essay is from Southwestern's "New Frontiers in Torts: The Challenges of Science, Technology, and Innovation" symposium last February. The abstract provides:
In an initial attempt to shield minors from pornography, Congress enacted the Communications Decency Act (CDA) of 1996. An amendment to the CDA, codified as section 230, originally was designed to encourage web-related defendants to self-regulate by shielding “Good Samaritan” websites from liability. Courts have interpreted the section broadly, creating almost complete civil immunity for interactive computer services (ICS) for the statements of their users—regardless of whether they would have been “publishers or distributors” at common law. Despite the good intentions behind section 230, the broad immunity that it has provided ICSs ultimately prevents holding ICSs accountable for their wrongful behavior: not only defamation, but also conduct such as malicious catfishing.
For at least fifteen years, commentators have proposed amending section 230, but, other than one limited exception, Congress has yet to take action. Recent political attention to section 230, however, provides an opportunity for reform, and this essay proposes such a reform. Although two reform proposals have received a lot of attention—the repeal of section 230 and a “notice-and-takedown-procedure”—we have concerns about both.
Instead, this essay proposes applying the actual malice standard to torts committed by ICSs in a distributor capacity. Expanding an earlier proposal, we would apply actual malice in all cases against ICSs acting as distributors. Moreover, we would apply the actual malice standard to torts beyond defamation. Thus, if an ICS were engaged in tortious conduct involving knowledge or reckless disregard for the truth, the ICS would be accountable. The actual malice standard holds web-related defendants accountable for egregious harm, while protecting them from overly burdensome liability.