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Mapping Digital Media: The Media and Liability for Content on the Internet

The Mapping Digital Media project examines the global opportunities and risks created by the transition from traditional to digital media. Covering 60 countries, the project examines how these changes affect the core democratic service that any media system should provide: news about political, economic, and social affairs.

This paper provides an overview of content liability on the internet, with a focus on the risks to human rights as governments claim extended authority over this unique, borderless medium. Speakers may be liable for content online in many of the same ways as offline, but additional rules often exist. Many countries are enacting internet-specific speech laws, often imposing enhanced liability for online expression. In addition, some governments are extending broadcast-type regulations to online media, which could create new sources of liability.

The authors also examine new entities that may be subject to liability on the internet. In some countries, “intermediaries”—meaning internet service providers (ISPs), webhosts, and other platforms for online expression—can be held responsible for the speech of others, which can lead to self-protective and overly broad “private” censorship. Since most speakers rely on intermediaries to host or disseminate their content, intermediary liability can harm citizens’ and media institutions’ ability to speak online.

The internet’s borderless nature may complicate any assessment of what content laws apply, and thus what liability risk may arise. Addressing these complex challenges requires attention to several policy areas, including enacting legal protections for internet intermediaries, repealing internet content laws that enhance liability, and opposing further extension of broadcast regulation to the internet.

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