Content Liability for Computer Service Providers

Providers of websites, bulletin boards, and various other online services often wonder about how much legal responsibility they bear for the content that their users upload. On the one hand, online service providers want to open, useful forums for their customers or users, and not have to spend a lot of time policing content. On the other hand, few want to be seen as tolerant of content that is offensive, inappropriate, or illegal.

These concerns over free speech and liability on the Internet led to section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act. The section states that providers or users of an “interactive computer service” shall not be considered the speakers or publishers of material added to that service by third parties. It also includes a “Good Samaritan” clause, which shields providers and users from civil liability for acting in good faith to police or restrict objectionable content.

§230 provides sweeping protections for online service providers. Providers are given free reign to restrict or permit third party content on their services as they see fit. Indeed, providers retain their protection from liability even after being notified of the presence of objectionable content on their service.

The law, however, is not all-encompassing. Decisions over the law often revolve around the distinction between “service providers” and “content providers,” which is not as clear as it seems at first glance. The use of trademarked or copyrighted materials without permission is not protected by §230, and instead falls under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Nevertheless, the law gives providers of interactive computer services broad protection from liability for the actions of their users or customers.