Anthony J. Pennings, PhD


The CDA’s Section 230: How Facebook and other ISPs became Exempt from Third Party Content Liabilities

Posted on | November 26, 2019 | No Comments

The rewrite of the communications law that emerged by early 1996 was driven by the appetite of the Bell legatees to position themselves as central providers of both content and conduit for the information age. – Patricia Aufderheide [1]

Facebook and other Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are facing criticism for the legitimacy of the third party content they carry and their attempts to manage it, especially political advertising. According to Title V of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, online intermediaries such as ISPs and telcos are legally protected from what users and publishers might do or say. The legislation was passed to enhance the service providers’ ability to monitor and even delete content without becoming publishers. In an emerging age of user-curated and user-generated content, the legislation has specific implications for the provision of news and social media in general.

Specifically, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA) stated 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.”[2] Section 230 also offered protection to bloggers who host comments on their blogs. Bloggers and later vloggers were not liable for comments left by readers or tips left via email.[3] Although the CDA was struck down by the Supreme Court as being too restrictive to free speech, Section 230 continued.

The Clinton Administration and its appointed Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman worked with the Republican-controlled Congress to pass the Telecom Act of 1996 and its associated Section 230 of the CDA. President William Jefferson Clinton, Vice President Al Gore, and the new FCC Chair, Reed Hundt, drove the policy process intending to enact a new telecommunications re-regulation to help revive the economy with a strategy based on the centrality of information technology. An agreement depended on getting some support from the new Republican Congress.

Republicans grouped around Newt Gingrich, a history professor from Georgia, who had been elected to the US House of Representatives in 1979. “Newt” proposed a new strategy of extreme partisanship, encouraging a total lack of cooperation with Democrats. He attacked House Speaker Jim Wright on ethics charges of bribery and not reporting book receipts, eventually driving him from office. Often invoking the memory of Ronald Reagan, Gingrich helped move the political landscape significantly to the political right.

Gingrich became the chief architect of the infamous “Contract with America,” an attempt to revive the Reagan Revolution. The Contract attempted to legislate the radical agenda of the Republican right, such as cutting back on welfare, forcing a balanced budget, eliminating public television, and phasing out government regulations on the media and telecommunications industries. Newt also wanted to get rid of the FCC, and relax accounting and securities rules on corporations.

On November 8, 1994, the Republicans obtained the House majority with a flood of new freshmen Congressmen, including Sonny Bono, the former Mayor of Palm Springs, and the slightly less talented side of the “Sonny and Cher” act. Another new Congressmen, Joe Scarborough later became the host of “Morning Joe,” an MSNBC morning cable news show. With the Republican victory, Gingrich became the Speaker of House, coordinating the legislative agenda and stepping up his divisive efforts.

On the legislative docket was a major reform of the Communications Act of 1934, eagerly pursued by both the Democrats and the Republicans. Central for Gingrich was the abolishing of the FCC and rolling back of anti-monopoly regulation. Tom DeLay’s (R-Tex.) worked with some 350 industry lobbyists drafting deregulation bills. Called Project Relief, the secretive group organizing campaign contributions for the legislation’s supporters while charting the course for a new era of oligopoly-controlled distribution of content.

It was the Democrats that took the more prurient course. Despite Gore’s objection, Senator J. James Exon, a Democrat from Nebraska, inserted the Communications Decency Act that criminalized offensive content. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act was not part of the original Senate legislation, but took shape in negotiations with the House of Representatives, where it had been separately introduced by Congressmen Christopher Cox (R-CA) and Ron Wyden (D-OR). Called the Internet Freedom and Family Empowerment Act, it passed by a near-unanimous vote.

One of the key issues guiding Section 230 goes back to a lawsuit called Stratton Oakmont v. Prodigy. Stratton Oakmont was a financial institution, and Prodigy was an online service that ran a chat room and offered a number of other services such as news and weather. Stratton Oakmont sued Prodigy because an anonymous participant in the chat room tarnished the financial company’s good name. Because the person who posted the information could not be found, Stratton Oakmont sued Prodigy. They won in court because they considered Prodigy a publisher as they had been filtering offensive content.

Congress, with encouragement from the telcos, did not agree and Title V was introduced to the Senate Committee of Commerce, Science, and Transportation by Senators James Exon (D-NE) and Slade Gorton (R-WA). Title V attempted to regulate both the exposure of indecency to children and obscenity online. It was added to the Telecommunications Act in the Senate on June 15, 1995 by an 81–18.

It effectively immunized both ISPs and Internet users from torts committed by others using their online services. A tort is legal liability for a civil wrong done by a person that unfairly causes someone else to suffer some harm or loss. The exemption was designed to protect the service provider, even if they fail to take action after receiving complaints about the harmful or offensive content.

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 was the most significant legislation affecting media industries since 1934. Signed into law by President Clinton on February 8, 1997, it contained several prominent provisions. Most notorious was the CDA that sought to make it a crime to post indecent materials on the Internet. The CDA was later overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court as an infringement of the First Amendment. After much fanfare, it was struck down on June 26, 1997 although it maintained protection for the private sector blocking and screening of offensive material.

Also controversial was Section 551, “Parental Choice in Television Viewing” which required that a V-Chip be installed in all new television sets so that parents could program their TVs to block programming according to a new ratings system. The V-Chips went in but they were largely ignored by parents.

It was an awkward piece of legislation, but one that allowed the FCC to create a new environment for the Internet to grow. Telcos were required to allow other companies to lease their network at regulated rates. This led to large number of ISPs offering low-cost Internet access.

The Act had a lot of political pork; in particular, the broadcast networks were given free spectrum for future offerings of digital high definition television. Section 336 specifying “Broadcast Spectrum Flexibility” doubled the frequency spectrum to 6 MHz for established licensees. The value of these public airwaves given away to private media corporations was estimated at $150 billion at the time. Although decried by some politicians like Bob Dole, the story did not get a lot of media coverage.

High-definition television (HDTV) in the United States began in 1998 and became a major economic force. HD (ATSC 1.0) and ATSC 2.0 provided 19.4 Mbps transmission and advanced video compression techniques that allowed major broadcasters to reach cord-cutters. With ATSC 3.0, 4K (3840 X 2160 at 60 frames per second) TV viewers will have web-enabled interactive features, Video on Demand (VoD) but also targeted ads.

Part of the Act broke open the segmentation that had separated the different communication sectors. After the Act, companies could invade the other’s turf. It removed barriers to entry to the once protected monopoly-controlled sectors. For example, broadcasters could move into broadband, and carriers could offer content. It also allowed consolidation of different media companies, creating a new frenzy of mergers. AT&T, for example, made significant multi-billion purchases of Media One and TCI to become a cable behemoth after they invented cable modems for broadband delivery along with television services. AOL, by far the largest ISP, merged with Time-Warner in an attempt to cross-pollinate between the “old economy” and the “new economy.”


[1] Aufderheide, Patricia (1998) Communications Policy and the Public Interest: The Telecommunications Act of 1996. NY: Guilford Publications, Inc. p. 37.

[2] (47 U.S.C. § 230). U.S. Code Title 47. TELECOMMUNICATIONS Chapter 5. WIRE OR RADIO COMMUNICATION Subchapter II. COMMON CARRIERS Part I. Common Carrier Regulation Section 230.

[3] Mackey, Aaron, et al. “Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.” Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Accessed November 25, 2019.



AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, Ph.D. is Professor and Vice-Chair at the Department of Technology and Society, State University of New York, Korea. From 2002-2012 was on the faculty of New York University. Previously, he taught at Hannam University in South Korea, Marist College in New York, Victoria University in New Zealand. He keeps his American home in Austin, Texas and has taught there in the Digital Media MBA program atSt. Edwards University He joyfully spent 9 years at the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii.


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