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While President Trump’s executive order Thursday on “preventing online censorship” is widely viewed as targeted toward social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube, all of which which were cited in the order, it could also pose an unintended threat to online travel and user review sites that are difficult to sue because of liability protections under a federal decency law.
Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which became law in 1996 as the internet was in its formative stage, protects companies such as Airbnb, Google, Tripadvisor, and Yelp from being liable for statements that consumers make in user reviews on their platforms, for example.
One repercussion of the president’s order would be that certain protections granted to companies, like those online travel giants, would be stripped away.
Airbnb, too, has used the Act in the past to argue that it is merely a neutral platform, connecting hosts and guests, and not responsible for furnishing host information to local authorities for tax purposes. However, Airbnb has made concessions on that front in recent years.
If those liability protections were to be diluted, then Tripadvisor, which boasts of 860 million reviews and options, could potentially be sued in U.S. federal courts for statements made in those online critiques. Tripadvisor has certainly drawn lawsuits over the years over intellectual property rights and other issues, but the Communications Decency Act provides a significant wall of protection when it comes to hotel and vacation rental review content, for example.
Tripadvisor peruses user reviews for factors such as fraud or relevance, but doesn’t censor reviews based on opinion. If President Trump gets Congress or federal agencies to whittle down the liability protections in the Communications Decency Act then it could be the death of the online review ecosystem that covers hotels, vacation rentals, airlines, cars — almost every consumer product or service in travel or the wider economy.
“Any action to reinterpret existing law should be subject to a full policymaking process that involves the Congress, the Administration, industry, academics and consumer advocates who aim to protect our freedoms of speech online and ensure the consumer benefits of Internet platforms remain paramount,” said Tripadvisor spokesman Brian Hoyt in reaction to the executive order.
A Google spokesperson condemned the president’s effort to undermine the Communications Decency Act.
“We have clear content policies and we enforce them without regard to political viewpoint,” the spokesperson said. “Our platforms have empowered a wide range of people and organizations from across the political spectrum, giving them a voice and new ways to reach their audiences. Undermining Section 230 in this way would hurt America’s economy and its global leadership on internet freedom.”
A Yelp spokesperson declined to comment on the executive order, and Airbnb didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Twitter’s action this week to fact-check the President’s tweets that alleged that mail-in balloting was rife with fraud triggered Trump’s executive order to clamp down on “online censorship.” That order calls for a Federal Communications Commission rulemaking process within 60 days to clarify the liability protections of platforms when they make editorial decisions, and for federal agencies to review their spending on these platforms.
“Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube wield immense, if not unprecedented, power to shape the interpretation of public events; to censor, delete, or disappear information; and to control what people see or do not see,” the executive order stated.
But the president alleged that online platforms are censoring content while protecting the statements of U.S. Representative Adam Schiff, a California Democrat, when he tweeted about Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe, which Trump referred to in the executive order as the “Russian Collusion Hoax.”
To be sure, the Communications Decency Act is controversial and has been used by platforms such as Airbnb to limit the amount of host information it provides to local regulators by arguing that Airbnb is merely a neutral platform protected by the Act.
As Skift wrote in 2018: “In the U.S., the company (Airbnb) refers to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act that protects websites from being liable for content posted by third parties on their platforms.
“More recently, however, some judges have decided to push back against the law in the U.S., as seen in San Francisco. If more lawmakers in the U.S. are able to craft legislation that circumvents laws like the CDA, that could have some serious implications as to how Airbnb complies with short-term rental regulations.”
In the interim, Airbnb has made concessions to some cities when it comes to furnishing host information for tax purposes. In 2019, Airbnb settled with the cities of Boston and Miami Beach and agreed to provide them with host information and to delist hosts who don’t register with those cities.