Rebooting Internet Immunity
53 Pages Posted: 3 Dec 2020 Last revised: 29 Mar 2021
Date Written: November 19, 2020
We do everything online. We shop, travel, invest, socialize, and even hold garage sales. Even though we may not care whether a company operates online or in the physical world, however, the question has dramatic consequences for the companies themselves. Online and offline entities are governed by different rules. Under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, online entities—but not physical-world entities—are immune from lawsuits related to content authored by their users or customers. As a result, online entities have been able to avoid claims for harms caused by their negligence and defective product designs simply because they operate online.
The reason for the disparate treatment is the internet’s dramatic evolution over the last two decades. The internet of 1996 served as an information repository and communications channel and was well governed by Section 230, which treats internet entities as another form of mass media: Because Facebook, Twitter and other online companies could not possibly review the mass of content that flows through their systems, Section 230 immunizes them from claims related to user content. But content distribution is not the internet’s only function, and it is even less so now than it was in 1996. The internet also operates as a platform for the delivery of real-world goods and services and requires a correspondingly diverse immunity doctrine. This Article proposes refining online immunity by limiting it to claims that threaten to impose a content-moderation burden on internet defendants. Where a claim is preventable other than by content moderation—for example, by redesigning an app or website—a plaintiff could freely seek relief, just as in the physical world. This approach empowers courts to identify culpable actors in the virtual world and treat like conduct alike wherever it occurs.
Keywords: internet law, cyberlaw, Section 230
JEL Classification: K13, K2, K42, O3
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation