New Essay on 47 USC 230(c)(2)

By Eric Goldman

I have posted a new essay, Online User Account Termination and 47 U.S.C. §230(c)(2), to SSRN. I wrote this essay as a contribution to a virtual world symposium at UC Irvine, and it will be published in the UC Irvine Law Review.

The essay generally argues that 47 USC 230(c)(2) permits online providers, including virtual world operators, to terminate user accounts without liability. Academic commentators frequently ignore or fail to consider Section 230(c)(2)’s immunity when discussing user account terminations, so the essay tries to elevate Section 230(c)(2)’s profile in the discussions, especially for the virtual world community. To me, Section 230(c)(2)’s applicability to account terminations is clear, but the story is complicated and perhaps not free from controversy. In addition to explaining the nuts-and-bolts, I offer a brief theoretical defense of the immunity.

I believe this essay is the first law review article exclusively on 47 USC 230(c)(2), the overlooked and undertheorized sibling of Section 230(c)(1). (FWIW, I have another, much larger article in process on Section 230(c)(1) that I hope to complete next semester.) If I’ve missed a 230(c)(2)-specific article, please please please let me know. For that reason alone, I’m quite excited about this essay.

I’m also excited about this essay because it culminates a topic I’ve been contemplating since I began blogging–the implications of virtual world proprietors’ rights to terminate for convenience. See, e.g., this post–one of my first on the blog–from 6 1/2 years ago. After all these years, I’m glad to finally organize my thoughts more completely.

The essay is in draft form, so I would gratefully welcome your comments.

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The abstract:

An online provider’s termination of a user’s online account can be a major-and potentially even life-changing-event for the user. Account termination exiles the user from a virtual place the user wanted to be; termination disrupts any social network relationship ties in that venue, and prevents the user from sending or receiving messages there; and the user loses any virtual assets in the account, which could be anything from archived emails to accumulated game assets. The effects of account termination are especially acute in virtual worlds, where dedicated users may be spending a majority of their waking hours or have aggregated substantial in-game wealth. However, the problem arises in all online environments (including email, social networking and web hosting) where account termination disrupts investments made by users.

Because of the potentially significant consequences from online user account termination, user-rights advocates, especially in the virtual world context, have sought legal restrictions on online providers’ discretion to terminate users. However, these efforts are largely misdirected because of 47 U.S.C. §230(c)(2) (“Section 230(c)(2)”), a federal statutory immunity. This essay, written in conjunction with an April 2011 symposium at UC Irvine entitled “Governing the Magic Circle: Regulation of Virtual Worlds,” explains Section 230(c)(2)’s role in immunizing online providers’ decisions to terminate user accounts. It also explains why this immunity is sound policy.

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