The Communications Decency Act
Lately, we have been hearing a lot about the Communications Decency Act, specifically Section 230. When we talked to Jared Beck about his case against Yelp, the CDA was the legislation that ultimately protected Yelp from extortion charges. Just last week, we spoke with owner of Dietz Development, LLC, Christopher Dietz, who pursued legal action after receiving an online review that included false accusations. The defendant in Dietz’s case was protected by the CDA, as well. So, what exactly is the Communications Decency Act? What does Section 230 say? And how does it defend review sites like Yelp and Angie’s List?
The CDA’s History
The Communications Decency Act was passed in 1996, 17 long years ago. It was tacked onto the Telecommunications Act, which was an amendment of the Communications Act of 1934. The original Communications Act of 1934 “organized federal regulation of telephone, telegraph, and radio communications” and also established the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), according to the Department of Justice. As you can imagine, after 62 years, the bill was in desperate need of updating.
In the years following 1934 and leading up to 1996, a plethora of revolutionary technologies were introduced to consumers. In those 62 years, we first saw, among countless other inventions, the jukebox, CDs, television, credit cards, cell phones, computers, and Pong, the very first video game. But the most revolutionary invention of all was arguably the World Wide Web, which began development in 1989.
With the introduction of this new communicative technology, lawmakers thought it necessary to write new legislation to regulate it. That’s where the Communications Decency Act came into the picture, which was originally written “in an attempt to regulate obscenity and indecency online.” However, some worried about what would happen to free speech under the CDA. So, Section 230 was introduced. Section 230 states that “No 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.” In short, this means that websites are not liable for any user-generated content posted on them.
To this day, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act regulates activity online. As we have seen in cases like Jared Beck’s and Christopher Dietz’s, this can be a huge issue for business owners dealing with online reviews, since Section 230 protects review sites from being held responsible for the content in user reviews. Free speech should certainly be a well-protected right online and offline and, for this reason, Section 230 has served a valiant purpose. However, such vague legislation from so long ago is not quite fit to dictate online activity today, especially in the context of online reviews.
The Consequences of an Outdated Bill
In the time between the Communications Act of 1934 and the Communications Decency Act of 1996, a lot had indeed changed and it was absolutely necessary to update the existing legislation. Yet in the time since the CDA of 1996, possibly even more has changed. Mashable put together an excellent and amusing infographic comparing the Internet in 1996 to the Internet in 2011, which demonstrates just how drastically times have changed. For example, in 1996, the average Internet user only spent about 30 minutes on the Web. In 2011, the average user spent 27 hours online. Back then, only 20 million Americans used the Internet, compared to the 245 million that used it in 2011. So, it’s safe to say that things were quite different 17 years ago.
Even more, online review sites as they are today didn’t exist back then. Amazon, one of the first sites to introduce a customer review system, had just been founded in 1994. Angie’s List didn’t make the jump to the Internet until 1999, and Yelp was only just introduced in 2004. Legislators in 1996 simply could not have known what the environment on the Web would be like today.
Seventeen years later, with the rapid development of social media and online customer review sites, the CDA of 1996 is no longer adequate for proper regulation of online activity. Everything has changed, except for the state legislation. As technology and the use of the Internet continue to push new boundaries, it seems illogical that the online regulations wouldn’t adapt in its unison.
When the Section 230 of the CDA is applied to present-day cases, problems ensue for business owners. Take Christopher Dietz’s case. A former customer of his used Yelp and Angie’s List to write a review including false allegations. Defamation of this kind is illegal activity in the state of Virginia, where Dietz took the case. However, the defamation charges were overlooked and were, for whatever reason, protected by Section 230. Now, if what the reviewer said was true, then of course her review should stand. Since what she said was false, however, and was potentially intended to defame Dietz Development, there’s no reason it should be protected by Section 230. Are businesses just supposed to put up with slander, libel, and defamation due to the CDA?
Time for Change
Due to the accelerated development of the Internet these past 17 years, it’s time for new legislation regarding content posted on the Web. In the context of online reviews specifically, which now influence 72% of consumers, updated laws are more important than ever. As Jared Beck stated in his podcast interview, “We’re really living in an environment nowadays where if you’re a small business, or an individual, and you’re going up against a large business like Yelp, you really can’t count on courts to protect your rights.” If that weren’t bleak enough, Yelp is seeking to pass legislation that would make it even more difficult for businesses to take legal action against the review site or its reviewers.
We’re not certain on what it will take for change to happen. But, in the wake of a crackdown on fake reviews by the New York Attorney General, review sites like Yelp are currently under scrutiny. This is the moment for business owners who have encountered illegal activity on review sites to voice their concerns in changing what is currently an unjust system. With so many unnerved and fed up business owners, its only a matter of time before things boil over.