2014 SXSW Interactive Session Spotlight: The Fragile Law That Protects Online Speech

Written by Megan Simpson | February 27, 2014

At SXSW 2014, Jeff Hermes talks about the laws that protect online speech

Jeff Hermes (@DMLPBerkman) is the Director of the Digital Media Law Project at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society, which provides legal resources to online media ventures and studies systemic legal issues affecting networked speech. The project has assisted hundreds of clients with legal questions relating to online speech, including many clients who take advantage of the protection of Section 230 either as a user or as a host of user-generated content. As the director of this project, Hermes is in a unique position to speak about the real-world effect of Section 230 on personal liberty and security, online social interaction, digital commerce, and other significant issues. He’ll deliver his panel on this topic titled, “The Fragile Law that Protects Online Speech” at SXSW this year. Read this installment of the Session Spotlight below to learn more!

SXSW: What is “The Fragile Law that Protects Online Speech” all about?
Hermes: Section 230 of the Federal Communications Decency Act is responsible for the shape of the Internet as we know it today, by freeing website operators from needing to conduct a legal review of each and every user communication that crosses their systems. And yet, the protection granted by Section 230 is both controversial and fragile. Judges are uncomfortable with websites that publish revenge porn, pay-to-remove mugshot galleries, and prostitution ads with impunity. State attorneys general have demanded that Congress amend Section 230 to let them bring criminal charges against social media sites. But what would limiting Section 230 mean for the future of peer-to-peer communication? This panel will explore the controversy over Section 230, including the voices demanding changes and the consequences of yielding to such demands.

SXSW: Have you spoken about this topic previously?
Hermes: In addition to numerous media interviews, I have spoken about Section 230 and other legal protections for online intermediaries in dozens of different forums around the United States, including conference sessions for journalists, social media providers, and media attorneys, as well as university-based classes for undergraduate and graduate students. I have also been an invited speaker for private corporations on this topic, including (within the past year) TripAdvisor, and have advised numerous clients about Section 230 in my capacity as a practicing attorney.

SXSW: Who will benefit from your session? Why should they attend?
Hermes: Anyone who operates or uses online services that host user content will want to attend this session. It will also be of interest to anyone who is concerned about civil behavior and harmful content online, and the complex tensions around regulating such content. Section 230 is the legal lynchpin that, in the United States, holds the Internet, as we now know it together. It is also one of the most significant points of distinction between U.S. regulation of online speech and regulation in other countries. Anyone whose business or personal interests depend on the ability of an individual user to share content online needs to know how this statute works and why there are so many people seeking to change it.

SXSW: What will participants know by the end of the session that they may have not known before?
Hermes: By the end of this session, we intend the audience to understand what protection is offered under Section 230 and why, as well as the reasons why the statute has raised so many challenges and objections. We want to give the audience the ability to think about the policy issues surrounding protection for online intermediaries in a balanced manner that recognizes the varied and serious interests at stake.

SXSW: What is the most exciting part of this session?
Hermes: Changes to Section 230 could radically reshape online communication, and the past year has seen new theories advanced in court to limit the statute's reach and high-profile calls by state officials for statutory reform. Regardless of where you eventually come down on these issues, it is critical that members of the public understand what is at stake before decisions on the future of Section 230 are made without their voices being heard.

SXSW: Now for a few fun questions - what do you do to relax and unwind?
Hermes: I write science fiction stories, with a couple of novels in the works. I tend to focus my writing on abstracted realities, where intangible concepts in one context become physical and tangible in another.

SXSW: What is your favorite book from the last year and why?
Hermes: My favorite book from the past year was The Hydrogen Sonata, by Iain M. Banks. Not to be depressing, but it was one of the most fascinating meditations on the meaning of life in the face of impending death that I have ever read. And it’s not a bad action story, to boot.

SXSW: What is your favorite gadget and why?
Hermes: I love my key-shaped multi-tool that’s hooked on my key ring. It's saved me on any number of occasions.

SXSW: And finally, what inspires your creativity?
Hermes: It can come from just about any source. My brain is wired for pattern recognition, and I see patterns all over the place that translate into many different contexts.

Watch this website for more installments of the 2014 SXSW Interactive Session Spotlight. Click here for the complete list of programming for March in Austin. For tips on interesting sessions to attend, visit the new Recommendation page. Register now to attend “The Fragile Law that Protects Online Speech” and other incredible programming at SXSW Interactive 2014.