Contrarian Statutory Interpretation Continued (CDA Edition)

Following my contrarian post about how to read the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, I thought I would write about the Communication’s Decency Act. I’ve written about the CDA before (hard to believe it has been almost 3 years!), but I’ll give a brief summary here.

The CDA provides immunity from the acts of users of online providers. For example, if a user provides defamatory content in a comment, a blog need not remove the comment to be immune, even if the blog receives notice that the content is defamatory, and even if the blog knows the content is defamatory.

I agree with most of my colleagues who believe this statute is a good thing for the internet. Where I part ways from most of my colleagues is how broadly to read  the statute.

Since this is a post about statutory interpretation, I’ll include the statute:

Section 230(c)(1) of the CDA states that:

No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.

In turn, an interactive computer service is:

any information service, system, or access software provider that provides or enables computer access by multiple users to a computer server, including specifically a service or system that provides access to the Internet and such systems operated or services offered by libraries or educational institutions.

Further, an information content provider is:

any person or entity that is responsible, in whole or in part, for the creation or development of information provided through the Internet or any other interactive computer service.

So, where do I clash with others on this? The primary area is when the operators of the computer service make decisions to publish (or republish) content.  I’ll give three examples that courts have determined are immune, but that I think do not fall within the statute:

  1. Web Site A pays Web Site B to republish all of B’s content on Site A. Site A is immune.
  2. Web Site A selectively republishes some or all of a story from Web Site B on Site A. Site A is immune.
  3. Web Site A publishes an electronic mail received by a reader on Site A. Site A is immune.

These three examples share a common thread: Site A is immune, despite selectively seeking out and publishing content in a manner that has nothing to do with the computerized processes of the provider. In other words, it is the operator, not the service, that is making publication determinations.

To address these issues, cases have focused on “development” of the information. One case, for example, defines development as a site that “contributes materially to the alleged illegality of the conduct.” Here, I agree with my colleagues that development is being defined too broadly to limit immunity. Development should mean that the provider actually creates the content that is displayed. For that reason, I agree with the Roommates.com decision, which held that Roommates developed content by providing pre-filled dropdown lists that allegedly violated the Fair Housing Act. It turns out that the roommate postings were protected speech, but that is a matter of substance, and not immunity. The fact that underlying content is eventually vindicated does not mean that immunity should be expanded. To the extent some think that the development standard is limited only to development of illegal content (something implied by the text of the Roommates.com decision), I believe that is too limiting. The question is the source of the information, not the illegality of it.

The burning issue is why plaintiffs continue to rely on “development” despite its relatively narrow application. The answer is that this is all they currently have to argue, and that is where I disagree with my colleagues. I believe the word “interactive” in the definition must mean something. It means that the receipt of content must be tied to the interactivity of the provider. In other words, receipt of the offending content must be automated or otherwise interactive to be considered for immunity.

Why do I think that this is the right reading? First, there’s the word “interactive.” It was chosen for a reason. Second, the definition of “information content provider” identifies information “provided through the Internet or any other interactive computer service.” (emphasis added). This implies that the provision of information should be based on interactivity or automation.

There is support in the statute for only immunizing information directly provided through interactivity. Section, 230(d), for example, requires interactive service providers to notify their users about content filtering tools. This implies that the information being provided is through the interactive service.  Sections 230(a) and (b) describe the findings and policy of Congress, which describe interactive services as new ways for users to control information and for free exchange of ideas.

I think one can read the statute more broadly than I am here. But I also believe that there is no reason to do so. The primary benefit of Section 230 is a cost savings mechanism. There’s is no way many service providers can screen all the content on their websites for potentially tortious activity. There’s just no filter for that.

Allowing immunity for individualized editorial decisions like paying for syndicated content, picking and choosing among emails, and republishing stories from other web sites runs directly counter to this cost saving purpose.  Complaining that it costs too much to filter interactive user content is a far cry from complaining that it costs to much to determine whether an email is true before making a noninteractive decision to republish it. We should want our service providers to expend some effort before republishing.