The Battle To Reform The Communications Decency Act

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Sir Tim Berners-Lee, is the inventor of the World Wide Web as we know it and the founder of the World Wide Web Foundation. From the beginning, he created a vision that would break down geographical barriers and build capabilities.

The internet would ultimately empower people to bring about positive change and empower them to freely share their thoughts with billions of people from the global community. Here in 2018, it’s easy to take for granted how easy it is to share our opinions by commenting on news articles or posting our experiences with brands on review sites such as Yelp.

However, there is an increasing cause for concern that opinions and honest reviews could soon be silenced by those that choose to manipulate judicial systems for their own advantage. There have also been recent reports suggesting that unverified anonymous reviews and complaints sites such as Ripoff Report were losing visibility in Google’s organic search results.

Completed Google Search Results

The Ripoff Report is the kind of complaint website that no brand wants to get listed on. The sites “no removal” policy and even declined court-ordered removals in the past. With similar sites such as ComplaintsBoard, DirtyScam, and ConsumerAffairs also sliding down the rankings many are questioning if Google has updated their algorithm or merely targeting these types of review sites.

The Communications Decency Act (CDA) is the Federal Law that lets reviews remain online in the US. But many businesses believe that as the power of online review sites and their influence continue to grow, the legislation is in desperate need of reform.

For example, the online publishing community has often been accused of setting up camp underneath the immunity that section 230 of the Communications Decency Act provides. But, what is it and why are webmasters and tech behemoths united in protecting it?

Traditional forms of media such as newspapers were always made to be accountable for every word that appears in the publication. Online, things are a little more complicated. Websites and tech giants such as Google and Facebook are seldom held accountable for the actions of their users on their platforms.

Many label section 230 as a core pillar of internet freedom and will argue passionately that without the legislation there would be no Trip Advisor, Yelp, Twitter and Facebook. Essentially section 230 is a liability shield that enables every one of us to post opinions and publish reviews. Without it, freedom of speech would be extremely diluted.

However, business owners are repeatedly making claims against review sites such as Yelp. Why? They intend to ensure that all platforms are made accountable for any defamatory comments written by third-party users on the platform regarding any business, product or service. It’s crucial that lawmakers get this right or it could mean the disappearance of bad reviews.

Completed Bad Review

The excuse that online intermediaries are nothing more than a forum for online expression is no longer cutting it. As the Internet has evolved, there is an argument that online intermediaries are much more involved with third-party content than just providing a digital playground for their users to share ideas.

There is a very blurry line between removing every defamatory review published by an online user with their own unsavory agenda and forcing a review site to remove honest feedback. Maybe, the biggest problem is hiding behind anonymity and legal loopholes.

Shouldn’t any reviewer be proud to publish a review using their real identity and have the ability to verify the purchase and reasons for a bad review? Rather than pile the pressure of responsibility onto online platforms for how users behave or get treated, maybe we should take responsibility for our own actions.

Even this common sense approach could lead to a business raising a lawsuit against a user for leaving a bad review. Thankfully, it’s not all bad news. In the recent Hassell v. Bird court case, the California Supreme Court opted not to force Yelp to take down an offending review.

The big questions that remain are should tech giants such as Google, Facebook, Yelp and Twitter be made accountable for the actions of their users? And how can we protect individuals and companies from hiding behind laws that were meant to create and preserve a civil society whether that be online or offline?

Section 230 has suffered a turbulent year, but as the internet continues to evolve, I predict more and more organizations will attempt to remove the protection that grants us with the freedom that we often take for granted.

Tech Columnist, Writer, Blogger and Podcaster featured in @HuffingtonPost @TheNextWeb @Inc @ZDnet & LinkedIn Top Voice on Technology https://lists.linkedin.com/2015/top-voices/technology?trk=ranking-overview-b-ind#.

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