Guide to online publishing liability immunity under the Communications Decency Act Section 230

Introduction and Requirements for Receiving § 230 Immunity


Imagine the you are a well known social media site. You may be concerned that you're legally responsible for content posted by parties that visit your site.

U.S. federal law provides a significant immunity for those who publish online (operators of websites, interactive computer services, and others) from liability for the content and statements of third parties. Immunity means that you are not liable for damages caused by those who post content on your site. This immunity is found in the Communications Decency Act, Section 230

Section 230 grants limited immunity to publishers from liability on account of statements and content created by third parties. This creates a new level of protection for services and individuals that redistribute speech on the Internet, and is very different from liability for statements of others offline, in traditional media like newspapers.

Title 47 USC §230(c)(1) states that “[n]o 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.” Similar to the DMCA safe harbors, CDA § 230 immunity does not shield the person who created the content, but instead protects intermediary service providers who host content created by others.

Section 230(c)(1) of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 (CDA) provides immunity from legal liability for "providers or users" of an "interactive computer service" who publish information provided by others.  Congress enacted section 230 in response to the difficulties in determining liability for unlawful content online (such as defamatory statements or invasions of privacy). 

In cases dealing with liability for unlawful content in traditional print media, both the author of the content and the publisher (due to its editorial control over the content) would be held liable.  However, the distributor (such as a newsstand or bookstore) would not be liable.  Because these concepts were difficult to apply in the context of the Internet, Congress enacted § 230.  Thus, the CDA § 230 immunity is not a shield for the actual content creator, but instead protects intermediary service providers who host content created by others. 

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