In recent years, a diverse cross-section of advocates and politicians have leveled criticisms at Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act and its grant of legal immunity to interactive computer services. Proposed legislative changes to the law have been put forward by both Republicans and Democrats.
It remains unclear whether Congress (or the courts) will amend Section 230, but any changes are bound to expand the scope, uncertainty, and expense of content risks. That’s why it’s important that such changes be developed and implemented in ways that minimize their potential to significantly disrupt and harm online activity. This piece focuses on those insurable content risks that most frequently result in litigation and considers the effect of the direct and indirect costs caused by frivolous suits and lawfare, not just the ultimate potential for a court to find liability. The experience of the 1980s asbestos-litigation crisis offers a warning of what could go wrong.
Enacted in 1996, Section 230 was intended to promote the Internet as a diverse medium for discourse, cultural development, and intellectual activity by shielding interactive computer services from legal liability when blocking or filtering access to obscene, harassing, or otherwise objectionable content. Absent such immunity, a platform hosting content produced by third parties could be held equally responsible as the creator for claims alleging defamation or invasion of privacy.
In the current legislative debates, Section 230’s critics on the left argue that the law does not go far enough to combat hate speech and misinformation. Critics on the right claim the law protects censorship of dissenting opinions. Legal challenges to the current wording of Section 230 arise primarily from what constitutes an “interactive computer service,” “good faith” restriction of content, and the grant of legal immunity, regardless of whether the restricted material is constitutionally protected.
While Congress and various stakeholders debate various alternate statutory frameworks, several test cases simultaneously have been working their way through the judicial system and some states have either passed or are considering legislation to address complaints with Section 230. Some have suggested passing new federal legislation classifying online platforms as common carriers as an alternate approach that does not involve amending or repealing Section 230. Regardless of the form it may take, change to the status quo is likely to increase the risk of litigation and liability for those hosting or publishing third-party content.
The Nature of Content Risk
The class of individuals and organizations exposed to content risk has never been broader. Any information, content, or communication that is created, gathered, compiled, or amended can be considered “material” which, when disseminated to third parties, may be deemed “publishing.” Liability can arise from any step in that process. Those who republish material are generally held to the same standard of liability as if they were the original publisher. (See, e.g., Rest. (2d) of Torts § 578 with respect to defamation.)
Digitization has simultaneously reduced the cost and expertise required to publish material and increased the potential reach of that material. Where it was once limited to books, newspapers, and periodicals, “publishing” now encompasses such activities as creating and updating a website; creating a podcast or blog post; or even posting to social media. Much of this activity is performed by individuals and businesses who have only limited experience with the legal risks associated with publishing.
This is especially true regarding the use of third-party material, which is used extensively by both sophisticated and unsophisticated platforms. Platforms that host third-party-generated content—e.g., social media or websites with comment sections—have historically engaged in only limited vetting of that content, although this is changing. When combined with the potential to reach consumers far beyond the original platform and target audience—lasting digital traces that are difficult to identify and remove—and the need to comply with privacy and other statutory requirements, the potential for all manner of “publishers” to incur legal liability has never been higher.
Even sophisticated legacy publishers struggle with managing the litigation that arises from these risks. There are a limited number of specialist counsel, which results in higher hourly rates. Oversight of legal bills is not always effective, as internal counsel often have limited resources to manage their daily responsibilities and litigation. As a result, legal fees often make up as much as two-thirds of the average claims cost. Accordingly, defense spending and litigation management are indirect, but important, risks associated with content claims.
Effective risk management is any publisher’s first line of defense. The type and complexity of content risk management varies significantly by organization, based on its size, resources, activities, risk appetite, and sophistication. Traditional publishers typically have a formal set of editorial guidelines specifying policies governing the creation of content, pre-publication review, editorial-approval authority, and referral to internal and external legal counsel. They often maintain a library of standardized contracts; have a process to periodically review and update those wordings; and a process to verify the validity of a potential licensor’s rights. Most have formal controls to respond to complaints and to retraction/takedown requests.
Insuring Content Risks
Insurance is integral to most publishers’ risk-management plans. Content coverage is present, to some degree, in most general liability policies (i.e., for “advertising liability”). Specialized coverage—commonly referred to as “media” or “media E&O”—is available on a standalone basis or may be packaged with cyber-liability coverage. Terms of specialized coverage can vary significantly, but generally provides at least basic coverage for the three primary content risks of defamation, copyright infringement, and invasion of privacy.
Insureds typically retain the first dollar loss up to a specific dollar threshold. They may also retain a coinsurance percentage of every dollar thereafter in partnership with their insurer. For example, an insured may be responsible for the first $25,000 of loss, and for 10% of loss above that threshold. Such coinsurance structures often are used by insurers as a non-monetary tool to help control legal spending and to incentivize an organization to employ effective oversight of counsel’s billing practices.
The type and amount of loss retained will depend on the insured’s size, resources, risk profile, risk appetite, and insurance budget. Generally, but not always, increases in an insured’s retention or an insurer’s attachment (e.g., raising the threshold to $50,000, or raising the insured’s coinsurance to 15%) will result in lower premiums. Most insureds will seek the smallest retention feasible within their budget.
Contract limits (the maximum coverage payout available) will vary based on the same factors. Larger policyholders often build a “tower” of insurance made up of multiple layers of the same or similar coverage issued by different insurers. Two or more insurers may partner on the same “quota share” layer and split any loss incurred within that layer on a pre-agreed proportional basis.
Navigating the strategic choices involved in developing an insurance program can be complex, depending on an organization’s risks. Policyholders often use commercial brokers to aide them in developing an appropriate risk-management and insurance strategy that maximizes coverage within their budget and to assist with claims recoveries. This is particularly important for small and mid-sized insureds who may lack the sophistication or budget of larger organizations. Policyholders and brokers try to minimize the gaps in coverage between layers and among quota-share participants, but such gaps can occur, leaving a policyholder partially self-insured.
An organization’s options to insure its content risk may also be influenced by the dynamics of the overall insurance market or within specific content lines. Underwriters are not all created equal; it is a challenging responsibility requiring a level of prediction, and some underwriters may fail to adequately identify and account for certain risks. It can also be challenging to accurately measure risk aggregation and set appropriate reserves. An insurer’s appetite for certain lines and the availability of supporting reinsurance can fluctuate based on trends in the general capital markets. Specialty media/content coverage is a small niche within the global commercial insurance market, which makes insurers in this line more sensitive to these general trends.
Litigation Risks from Changes to Section 230
A full repeal or judicial invalidation of Section 230 generally would make every platform responsible for all the content they disseminate, regardless of who created the material requiring at least some additional editorial review. This would significantly disadvantage those platforms that host a significant volume of third-party content. Internet service providers, cable companies, social media, and product/service review companies would be put under tremendous strain, given the daily volume of content produced. To reduce the risk that they serve as a “deep pocket” target for plaintiffs, they would likely adopt more robust pre-publication screening of content and authorized third-parties; limit public interfaces; require registration before a user may publish content; employ more reactive complaint response/takedown policies; and ban problem users more frequently. Small and mid-sized enterprises (SMEs), as well as those not focused primarily on the business of publishing, would likely avoid many interactive functions altogether.
A full repeal would be, in many ways, a blunderbuss approach to dealing with criticisms of Section 230, and would cause as many or more problems as it solves. In the current polarized environment, it also appears unlikely that Congress will reach bipartisan agreement on amended language for Section 230, or to classify interactive computer services as common carriers, given that the changes desired by the political left and right are so divergent. What may be more likely is that courts encounter a test case that prompts them to clarify the application of the existing statutory language—i.e., whether an entity was acting as a neutral platform or a content creator, whether its conduct was in “good faith,” and whether the material is “objectionable” within the meaning of the statute.
A relatively greater frequency of litigation is almost inevitable in the wake of any changes to the status quo, whether made by Congress or the courts. Major litigation would likely focus on those social-media platforms at the center of the Section 230 controversy, such as Facebook and Twitter, given their active role in these issues, deep pockets and, potentially, various admissions against interest helpful to plaintiffs regarding their level of editorial judgment. SMEs could also be affected in the immediate wake of a change to the statute or its interpretation. While SMEs are likely to be implicated on a smaller scale, the impact of litigation could be even more damaging to their viability if they are not adequately insured.
Over time, the boundaries of an amended Section 230’s application and any consequential effects should become clearer as courts develop application criteria and precedent is established for different fact patterns. Exposed platforms will likely make changes to their activities and risk-management strategies consistent with such developments. Operationally, some interactive features—such as comment sections or product and service reviews—may become less common.
In the short and medium term, however, a period of increased and unforeseen litigation to resolve these issues is likely to prove expensive and damaging. Insurers of content risks are likely to bear the brunt of any changes to Section 230, because these risks and their financial costs would be new, uncertain, and not incorporated into historical pricing of content risk.
Remembering the Asbestos Crisis
The introduction of a new exposure or legal risk can have significant financial effects on commercial insurance carriers. New and revised risks must be accounted for in the assumptions, probabilities, and load factors used in insurance pricing and reserving models. Even small changes in those values can have large aggregate effects, which may undermine confidence in those models, complicate obtaining reinsurance, or harm an insurer’s overall financial health.
For example, in the 1980s, certain courts adopted the triple-trigger and continuous trigger methods of determining when a policyholder could access coverage under an “occurrence” policy for asbestos claims. As a result, insurers paid claims under policies dating back to the early 1900s and, in some cases, under all policies from that date until the date of the claim. Such policies were written when mesothelioma related to asbestos was unknown and not incorporated into the policy pricing.
Insurers had long-since released reserves from the decades-old policy years, so those resources were not available to pay claims. Nor could underwriters retroactively increase premiums for the intervening years and smooth out the cost of these claims. This created extreme financial stress for impacted insurers and reinsurers, with some ultimately rendered insolvent. Surviving carriers responded by drastically reducing coverage and increasing prices, which resulted in a major capacity shortage that resolved only after the creation of the Bermuda insurance and reinsurance market.
The asbestos-related liability crisis represented a perfect storm that is unlikely to be replicated. Given the ubiquitous nature of digital content, however, any drastic or misconceived changes to Section 230 protections could still cause significant disruption to the commercial insurance market.
Content risk is covered, at least in part, by general liability and many cyber policies, but it is not currently a primary focus for underwriters. Specialty media underwriters are more likely to be monitoring Section 230 risk, but the highly competitive market will make it difficult for them to respond to any changes with significant price increases. In addition, the current market environment for U.S. property and casualty insurance generally is in the midst of correcting for years of inadequate pricing, expanding coverage, developing exposures, and claims inflation. It would be extremely difficult to charge an adequate premium increase if the potential severity of content risk were to increase suddenly.
In the face of such risk uncertainty and challenges to adequately increasing premiums, underwriters would likely seek to reduce their exposure to online content risks, i.e., by reducing the scope of coverage, reducing limits, and increasing retentions. How these changes would manifest, and the pain for all involved, would likely depend on how quickly such changes in policyholders’ risk profiles manifest.
Small or specialty carriers caught unprepared could be forced to exit the market if they experienced a sharp spike in claims or unexpected increase in needed reserves. Larger, multiline carriers may respond by voluntarily reducing or withdrawing their participation in this space. Insurers exposed to ancillary content risk may simply exclude it from cover if adequate price increases are impractical. Such reactions could result in content coverage becoming harder to obtain or unavailable altogether. This, in turn, would incentivize organizations to limit or avoid certain digital activities.
Finding a More Thoughtful Approach
The tension between calls for reform of Section 230 and the potential for disrupting online activity does not mean that political leaders and courts should ignore these issues. Rather, it means that what’s required is a thoughtful, clear, and predictable approach to any changes, with the goal of maximizing the clarity of the changes and their application and minimizing any resulting litigation. Regardless of whether accomplished through legislation or the judicial process, addressing the following issues could minimize the duration and severity of any period of harmful disruption regarding content-risk:
- Presumptive immunity – Including an express statement in the definition of “interactive computer service,” or inferring one judicially, to clarify that platforms hosting third-party content enjoy a rebuttable presumption that statutory immunity applies would discourage frivolous litigation as courts establish precedent defining the applicability of any other revisions.
- Specify the grounds for losing immunity – Clarify, at a minimum, what constitutes “good faith” with respect to content restrictions and further clarify what material is or is not “objectionable,” as it relates to newsworthy content or actions that trigger loss of immunity.
- Specify the scope and duration of any loss of immunity – Clarify whether the loss of immunity is total, categorical, or specific to the situation under review and the duration of that loss of immunity, if applicable.
- Reinstatement of immunity, subject to burden-shifting – Clarify what a platform must do to reinstate statutory immunity on a go-forward basis and clarify that it bears the burden of proving its go-forward conduct entitled it to statutory protection.
- Address associated issues – Any clarification or interpretation should address other issues likely to arise, such as the effect and weight to be given to a platform’s application of its community standards, adherence to neutral takedown/complain procedures, etc. Care should be taken to avoid overcorrecting and creating a “heckler’s veto.”
- Deferred effect – If change is made legislatively, the effective date should be deferred for a reasonable time to allow platforms sufficient opportunity to adjust their current risk-management policies, contractual arrangements, content publishing and storage practices, and insurance arrangements in a thoughtful, orderly fashion that accounts for the new rules.
Ultimately, legislative and judicial stakeholders will chart their own course to address the widespread dissatisfaction with Section 230. More important than any of these specific policy suggestions is the principle underpins them: that any changes incorporate due consideration for the potential direct and downstream harm that can be caused if policy is not clear, comprehensive, and designed to minimize unnecessary litigation.
It is no surprise that, in the years since Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act was passed, the environment and risks associated with digital platforms have evolved or that those changes have created a certain amount of friction in the law’s application. Policymakers should employ a holistic approach when evaluating their legislative and judicial options to revise or clarify the application of Section 230. Doing so in a targeted, predictable fashion should help to mitigate or avoid the risk of increased litigation and other unintended consequences that might otherwise prove harmful to online platforms in the commercial insurance market.
Aaron Tilley is a senior insurance executive with more than 16 years of commercial insurance experience in executive management, underwriting, legal, and claims working in or with the U.S., Bermuda, and London markets. He has served as chief underwriting officer of a specialty media E&O and cyber-liability insurer and as coverage counsel representing international insurers with respect to a variety of E&O and advertising liability claims
 The triple-trigger method allowed a policy to be accessed based on the date of the injury-in-fact, manifestation of injury, or exposure to substances known to cause injury. The continuous trigger allowed all policies issued by an insurer, not just one, to be accessed if a triggering event could be established during the policy period.