President Trump signed an Executive Order today attempting to curtail legal protections under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (“Section 230” or the “CDA”). The Executive Order strives to clarify that Section 230 immunity “should not extend beyond its text and purpose to provide protection for those who purport to provide users a forum for free and open speech, but in reality use their power over a vital means of communication to engage in deceptive or pretextual actions stifling free and open debate by censoring certain viewpoints.”
Section 230 protects online providers in many respects concerning the hosting of user-generated content and bars the imposition of distributor or publisher liability against a provider for the exercise of its editorial and self-regulatory functions with respect to such user content. In response to certain moderation efforts toward the President’s own social media posts this week, the Executive Order seeks to remedy what the President claims is the social media platforms’ “selective censorship” of user content and the “flagging” of content that does not violate a provider’s terms of service.
The Executive Order does a number of things. It first directs:
- The Commerce Department to file a petition for rulemaking with the FCC to clarify certain aspect of CDA immunity for online providers, namely Good Samaritan immunity under 47 U.S.C. §230(c)(2). Good Samaritan immunity provides that an interactive computer service provider may not be made liable “on account of” its decision in “good faith” to restrict access to content that it considers to be “obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing or otherwise objectionable.”
- The provision essentially gives providers leeway to screen out or remove objectionable content in good faith from their platforms without fear of liability. Courts have generally held that the section does not require that the material actually be objectionable; rather, the CDA affords protection for blocking material that the provider or user considers to be “objectionable.” However, Section 230(c)(2)(A) requires that providers act in “good faith” in screening objectionable content.
- The Executive Order states that this provision should not be “distorted” to protect providers that engage in “deceptive or pretextual actions (often contrary to their stated terms of service) to stifle viewpoints with which they disagree.” The order asks the FCC to clarify “the conditions under which an action restricting access to or availability of material is not ‘taken in good faith’” within the meaning of the CDA, specifically when such decisions are inconsistent with a provider’s terms of service or taken without adequate notice to the user.
- Interestingly, the Order also directs the FCC to clarify if there are any circumstances where a provider that screens out content under the CDA’s Good Samaritan protection but fails to meet the statutory requirements should still be able to claim protection under CDA Section 230(c)(1) for “publisher” immunity (as, according to the Order, such decisions would be the provider’s own “editorial” decisions).
- To be sure, courts in recent years have dismissed claims against services for terminating user accounts or screening out content that violates content policies using the more familiar Section 230(c)(1) publisher immunity, stating repeatedly that decisions to terminate an account (or not publish user content) are publisher decisions, and are protected under the CDA. It appears that the Executive Order is suggesting that years of federal court precedent – from the landmark 1997 Zeran case until today – that have espoused broad immunity under the CDA for providers’ “traditional editorial functions” regarding third party content (which include the decision whether to publish, withdraw, postpone or alter content provided by another) were perhaps decided in error.