The case of Blockowicz v. Williams, — F.Supp.2d —, 2009 WL 4929111 (N.D. Ill. December 21, 2009), which I posted on last week is worthy of discussion in that it raises the question of whether website operators like Ripoff Report could get off too easily when they knowingly host harmful third party content. Immunity under 47 U.S.C. 230 is often criticized for going too far in shielding operators. Under Section 230, sites cannot be treated as the publisher or speaker of information provided by third party information content providers. This means that even when the site operator is put on notice of the content, it cannot face, for example, defamation liability for the continued availability of that content.
Don’t get me wrong — the Blockowicz case had nothing to do with Section 230. Although Ben Sheffner is routinely sharp in his legal analysis, I disagree with his assessment that Section 230 was the reason for the court’s decision. In the comments to Ben’s post that I just linked to, Ben gets into conversation with Ripoff Report’s general counsel, whom I believe correctly notes that the decision was not based on Section 230. Ben argues that had Section 230 not provided immunity, the plaintiffs would have been able to go after Ripoff Report directly, and therefore Section 230 is to blame. That’s kind of like saying if arson were legal, plaintiffs could just go burn down Ripoff Report’s datacenter. But you don’t hear anyone blaming arson laws for this decision.
Even though Section 230 didn’t form the basis of the court’s decision in favor of Ripoff Report, the notion of a website operator “acting in concert” with its users is intriguing. Clearly the policy of Section 230 is to place some distance, legally speaking, between site operator and producer of user-generated content. And the whole idea behind the requirement in copyright law that infringement must arise from a volitional act and not an automatic action of the system is a first cousin to this issue. See, e.g., Religious Tech. Center v. Netcom, 907 F.Supp. 1361, 1370 (N.D. Cal. 1995) (“[T]here should still be some element of volition or causation which is lacking where a defendant’s system is merely used to create a copy by a third party”).
For the web to continue to develop, we are going to need this continued protection of the intermediary. We’re going to see functions of the semantic web appear with more frequency in our everyday online lives. From a practical perspective, there will be even more distance — a continuing divergence between a provider’s will and the nature of the content. So as we get into the technologies that will make the web smarter, and our experience of it more robust and helpful, we’ll need notions of intermediary immunity more and not less.
That notion of an increasing need for intermediary immunity underscores how important it is that intermediaries act responsibly. No doubt people misunderstand the holdings of cases like this one. By refusing to voluntarily take down obviously defamatory material, and challenging a court order to do so, Ripoff Report puts a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. Sure there’s the First Amendment and all that, but where’s a sense of reasonable decency? Sure there’s the idea that free flowing information supports democracy and all that, but has anyone stopped to think what could happen when the politicians get involved again?
We are fortunate that Congress was as equinamimous and future-minded as it was in 1996 when it enacted the immunity provisions of Section 230. But results like the one in the Blockowicz case are going to be misunderstood. There’s a hue and cry already about this decision, in that it appears to leave no recourse. Section 230 wasn’t involved, but it still got the blame. Even the judge was “sympathetic to the [plaintiffs'] plight.”
So maybe we need, real quickly, another decision like the Roommates.com case, that reminds us that website operators don’t always get a free ride.