The Communications Decency Act of 1996 | The Volatile Law that Built the Internet

The Communications Decency Act was first made law in 1996 and has been one of the most important and volatile sets of rules and regulations ever since. Immediately after its passing, free speech groups filed suits to rule it unconstitutional due to it being vague in a number of areas, which would result in it violating the first amendment. Much of the original law was indeed ruled unconstitutional, but some of it remained in place, including section 230.

Section 230

This section is primarily used to limit the liability of website owners based on content that is submitted by their users. For example, Facebook can’t be sued because a user makes an unlawful post on their site.  

This section has been amended several times over the years. Some of the most significant changes included the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) that were passed in 2018. These changes have resulted in making it illegal for website owners to knowingly assist or facilitate in sex trafficking.

Violations of the Communications Decency Act

While this act has done a lot to protect free speech on the Internet, it doesn’t give website owners or any communications device users a free pass on everything. There are a number of different ways that people can, and have, violated this act. The following are some key violations to be aware of:

  • Sex Trafficking Services – The most high-profile example is when backpage.com, a site that allowed users to offer their sex-based services to local customers, was shut down. This was because the site was easily used for sex trafficking and violated the SESTA amendment.
  • Adult Services Pages – Related to the previous example, CraigsList took down their “personals” section of their site where people would go to meet up with others. This is because CraigsList knew that they couldn’t prevent this section from being used in sex trafficking.
  • Failure to Warn Situations – Courts have determined that the laws in the Communications Decency Act can be used in failure to warn claims. This means that a website may have an obligation to warn users of foreseeable dangers of using their service, if it is practical.

Navigating this Confusing Act

There is no doubt that the Communications Decency Act is confusing. This is in large part due to the fact that so much of it has been changed, ruled unconstitutional, or amended in the years since its passing. If you are being charged with a violation of this act, or you want to take steps to ensure you are not, please contact Lexero Law Firm to discuss your situation.

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