Glossary of Platform Law and Policy Terms

Safe Harbor

Cite this article as:
Nicolo Zingales (17/12/2021). Safe Harbor. In Belli, L.; Zingales, N. & Curzi, Y. (Eds.), Glossary of Platform Law and Policy Terms (online). FGV Direito Rio.

Author: Nicolo Zingales

A safe harbor is an area of exemption from liability guaranteed by the legal system, a ‘comfort zone’ that enables the pursuit of what would otherwise be considered legally risky activities. Safe harbors can be important not only to enable experimentation and innovation, but also, and particularly in the context of speech platforms, to allow the free flow of information. In the context of data privacy law, the term “Safe Harbor” refers to a framework, in place since the year 2000, whereby US companies could certify that they respect basic principles of the EU data protection directive, which in turn enabled such companies to transfer data from the EU to the US. In 2015, the framework was invalidated by a ruling of the European Court of Justice in the Schrems I case (Case C-362/14).  

The scope, limits, and conditions of safe harbors for digital intermediaries, are a crucial topic of Internet law and governance. There are several models with different characteristics, but a distinction should at least be made between vertical safe harbors, whose exemption applies to only a particular type of liability (for example, liability for copyright infringement, as in the US Digital Millennium Copyright Act, or DCMA) and horizontal, which establish an exemption applicable across different types of liability. However, it is worth noting that very rarely is a safe harbor entirely horizontal, as there are typically several exempted areas: for instance, the safe harbor established in section 230 of the US Communication Decency Act (CDA) explicitly excludes from its scope federal criminal law, intellectual property law, communications privacy law, sex trafficking law, and more generally U.S. state law. Similarly, the EU E-Commerce Directive (ECD) excludes from its scope taxation, data protection law, cartel law, the activities of notaries or equivalent professions to the extent that they involve a direct and specific connection with the exercise of public authority, the representation of a client and defense of his interests before the courts, and gambling activities which involve wagering a stake with monetary value in games of chance. In addition, the Directive explicitly preserves the ability of Member States to impose reasonable duties of care to detect and prevent certain types of illegal activities, and there are also differences in the type of knowledge of illegal activity that is sufficient to fall foul of the safe harbor with regard to criminal matters (actual v. constructive knowledge that applies to civil matters).

We can identify 2 different types of models regarding the conditions to be satisfied for the enjoyment of safe harbors for intermediary liability: one that applies broadly to a range of intermediaries, and another one that identifies specific safe harbors for different types of hosts. For instance, the CDA safe harbor applies to any provider or user of an interactive computer service, defined as an information service, system, or access software provider that provides or enables computer access by multiple users to a computer server, including specifically a service or system that provides access to the Internet and such systems operated or services offered by libraries or educational institutions. Similarly, Act No. 137 of 2001 on the Limitation of Liability of Intermediaries in Japan defined as provider of a service whose purpose is to communicate third party information to other parties, and the Indian IT Act defines an intermediary (which can benefit from the safe harbor) as “any person who on behalf of another person receives, stores or transmits that record or provides any service with respect to that record and includes telecom service providers, network service providers, internet service providers, web-hosting service providers, search engines, online payment sites, online-auction sites, online-market places and cyber cafes.

By contrast, the ECD provides much more specific protections to communications conduits, content hosts, and caching services, while the US DMCA includes in addition to that the categories of information location tools and non-profit educational institutions.Another crucial point is what conditions must be fulfilled in order for the intermediary to enjoy liability. Broadly, two different models can be distinguished: one that is premised on good faith, as in the CDA, or other forms of context-dependent knowledge; and another which is premised upon a qualified notice. Safe harbors can also have a combination of the two: for instance, the US DMCA introduces a notice and takedown framework while also carving out from the liability exemption case of both actual and constructive (and thus more context-dependent) knowledge of illegality. Similarly, the Finnish, the Chilean and the Brazilian system introduce a system based on judicial notice but contain exceptions for situations where constructive knowledge is admitted.

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By Nicolo Zingales

Nicolo Zingales is Professor of Information Law and Regulation at the law school of the Fundação Getulio Vargas in Rio de Janeiro, and coordinator of its E-commerce research group. He is also an affiliated researcher at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society, the Tilburg Law & Economics Center and the Tilburg Institute for Law and Technology, co-founder and co-chair of the Internet Governance Forum’s Dynamic Coalition on Platform Responsibility.

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