01 Apr Section 230 Amendment strips websites of immunity from anonymous commenters
Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, who is not particularly known for his friendliness toward the First Amendment, is at it again. As chairman of the Senate homeland security committee, Lieberman urged Twitter to stop hosting pro-Taliban tweets last fall, in addition to persuading Internet companies to remove blog posts that promote terrorism.
It appears he’s now taking the idea one step further by proposing an amendment to section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. (Source.) Section 230 (47 U.S.C. § 230) grants immunity to Internet Service Providers from being held liable for the comments of third parties to their websites. Basically, it’s what shields review sites like TripAdvisor or Yelp from butthurt business owners holding them liable for disgruntled third parties’ reviews. It is also what allows all of you to say whatever you want in the comments without The Legal Satyricon being taken to task for it (legally).
However, Lieberman’s proposed amendment would change that. The new language reads:
“No A provider or user of an interactive computer service shall may be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”
Although Lieberman is touting this amendment as an anti-terrorist effort, this action will have a chilling effect on all forms of Internet speech. Service providers from Comcast to Consumerist may now be treated as publishers to content posted to their websites. This opens up the possibility that review sites and others that rely on third parties for content will be held responsible for those very same deranged, sub-literate contributions. Lieberman’s proposed amendment will have a chilling effect on free speech, as any site that does not want to drown in legal bills likely won’t accept anonymous comments. If you’re a sissy with paper-thin skin or an obsession with “bullying,” rejoice, I suppose.
Long before the rise of the Internet, anonymous speech has provided an outlet for those who wanted to make their voices heard, but were unable to so for fear of retaliation. The issue of anonymous speech was discussed in great detail in McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Committee, which involved a woman who handed out unsigned political leaflets that opposed a tax levy. The Supreme Court held that such speech was protected:
“Under our Constitution, anonymous pamphleteering is not a pernicious, fraudulent practice, but an honorable tradition of advocacy and of dissent. Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority.”
Needless to say, inhibiting anonymous speech is an attack on this right in gross. It will be a grave day if this amendment succeeds. Although anonymous speech on the Internet is not always
the most intelligent, it still has its place in public discourse – for me to poop on. Civil liberties should not be victims in the attempt to curb terrorism, yet we have already succumbed to the Scylla and Charybdis of the TSA and NSA in entrusting our rights to the benevolent government. At this point, what’s one more right ceded to the security theater’s alphabet soup?