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Internet ‘Safe Harbor’ Law Threatened

A group of states’ attorney generals is planning to bring a proposed amendment to the 1996 Communications Decency Act before the US congress. The proposal would strengthen the rights of states in prosecuting web-based violators of state laws, but faces widespread opposition.


A group of States' Attorneys General is planning to ask the US congress to amend a portion of the 1996 Communications Decency Act in order to gain the ability to prosecute service providers and site owners for actions taken by random users using their services. The group is taking aim at Section 230, also known as the 'Safe Harbor' provision, in the act which protects publishers and operators from being held liable for content written by third parties in most cases not involving federal criminal law, intellectual property law, and electronic-communications privacy law.

The Proposed Change

The states' attorneys general group is interested in changing the wording of Section 230 in order to provide the opportunity for the prosecution of offences against state laws. The simplicity of the change is astounding: the group plans to request the US congress to amend Section 230 with two words, "and State," where the statute exempts cases involving federal criminal law.

The proposed amendment aims at bringing the state prosecutors up to the level of federal prosecutors in cases where state law has been violated. Many state prosecutors believe that the unintended consequence of Section 230 was to give websites immunity to most, if not all, state laws.

Possible Effects Of Change

The proposed change is touted as providing states with the ability to prosecute violations of states' law and list common sense examples such as prostitution and illegal drug sales. However, the unintended consequence of this change will be to open up companies to violations of archaic state laws in all 50 states.

Consider the ramifications of an aggressive state prosecutor bringing libel charges against Yelp, a popular business review site, for hosting scathing personal reviews of businesses that donate to his reelection campaign. Consider defamation charges brought against websites due to a Georgia law that prohibits speech that "blackened the memory" of a state native. Consider a Louisiana law that prohibits showing "contempt" for a resident of the state. The list can go on.


Are these changes necessary? Protecting the rights of states' attorneys generals to prosecute egregious violators of states' law is a worthy cause. However, as shown throughout the history of the US, frivolous cases are common during election season and the ability of this change to Section 230 would open up new avenues for targeted state-sponsored attacks upon the flavor-of-the-week internet company.

Keep in mind the horrible ramifications to freedom of speech on the web. The change to this act would be equal to allowing the prosecution of a gas station operator due to the fact that a terrorist purchased gas at his station on the way to committing a crime. As outlandish as that sounds, this is what the change to Section 230 would make possible on a countrywide basis.

Imagine 50 states' attorneys general salivating over the increased revenue from fines and judgments chasing down Facebook or Google for a random comment made by a 12-yearold kid with ADHD on an energy drink fueled rant. If you don't think it would happen, you don't pay much attention to American politics.

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