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The Third Wave of Internet Exceptionalism

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In 1996, a judge called the Internet "a unique and wholly new medium of worldwide human communication." Predicated on this perceived novelty, regulators have enacted many Internet-specific laws that diverge from regulatory precedents in other media, a phenomenon called Internet exceptionalism. Although Internet exceptionalism can be appropriate, it also can produce bad regulation when the Internet's differences are overstated. So when does Internet exceptionalism make sense? Eric Goldman discusses.

The First Wave: Utopianism

Internet exceptionalism started with the Internet's emergence as a mass market medium. In the mid-1990s, some people fantasized about an Internet "utopia" that would overcome the problems of other media. Some regulators, fearing disruption of this possible utopia, sought to protect the Internet.

One flagship example of this is 47 USC 230—a law still on the books. The statute categorically immunizes online providers from liability for publishing most types of third-party content. It was enacted (in part) "to preserve the vibrant and competitive free market that presently exists for the Internet and other interactive computer services, unfettered by Federal or State regulation." The result: The law treats online providers more favorably than offline publishers—even when they publish identical content.

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