By: Tim Sparapani
San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors is in the midst of a sometimes hot, sometimes cold dispute that’s currently targeting companies that facilitate short-term housing rentals online, but more broadly is a challenge to the internet platform companies that are propelling San Francisco’s and the nation’s economy. The current dispute stems from the Supervisors’ innocuous sounding ordinance that would force internet platform companies like HomeAway and Airbnb to either require those who offer rentals on their sites to register with the City, or kick the renters off the companies’ sites. If the companies refuse or resist, they face significant fines.
Of course, the City could and should just take direct enforcement actions against the property owners who aren’t complying with local laws but it wants the companies to bear this burden.
The first ordinance passed by Supervisors this spring was swiftly challenged in court, in part because it was an attack that violated a key federal law, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, that has helped the Bay Area’s tech innovators generate hundred of billions in economic value for the city, state, and national economy. Just last week, the Supervisors, who were previously resolute that the proposal did not violate federal law, withdrew the ordinance. They requested that the judge assigned to the case stay litigation while they rewrite the ordinance. Early drafts being circulated, however, appear to repeat the original mistake of punishing internet platforms when property owners fail to comply with the City’s registration requirements.
We live in the Internet Age, and more specifically, what I call the Internet Platform Economy. Internet platforms – Google, Facebook, eBay, Etsy, Tumblr, Craigslist, and a thousand others – are especially successful because they facilitate billions of people publishing content online, and with a few exceptions, the internet platform companies cannot be forced to police users’ content. America’s tech companies were empowered to create their online platforms by a provision tucked into a 20-year young federal law, the Communications Decency Act (CDA). With only a few exceptions, courts have ruled repeatedly that Section 230 of the CDA frees companies from liability for facilitating their users’ publication online of speech and content. This federal liability shield is the greatest single reason for the rise of these services because it is what allows internet platform companies to host billions of interactions without being constantly mired in legal disputes.