State Attorneys General Want To Sue Innovators 'For The Children!'

from the oh-please dept

We warned this was coming last month, but it’s now official as 49 48 47 of the 50 state attorneys general have sent an absolutely ridiculous letter to Congress seeking to obliterate the very important Section 230 of the CDA. As has been discussed, at length, over the years, Section 230 has played a key role in allowing innovation to flourish online. What it does is guarantee that (a) liability is properly placed on the party breaking the law and that (b) internet services and innovators can quickly extricate themselves from bogus costly lawsuits filed by people who try to blame those services for how their users use them.

The concept behind Section 230 is quite straightforward: the internet service is not liable for the actions of its users. This should be common sense. We don’t blame AT&T when someone makes a phone call to try to extort someone. Nor should we blame an internet service when someone does something illegal via their service. Unfortunately, we live in an age of what I’ve referred to as Steve Dallas lawsuits, after a classic Bloom County comic strip in which lawyer Steve Dallas explains why he’s suing a camera company after he got beat up by a celebrity in trying to take a paparazzi photo. He notes that all of the other suspects aren’t good to sue, but going after “a major corporation with gobs of cash” and claiming they were “criminally negligent” is the American way.

This gets even worse when you throw state attorneys general into the mix. As a group, state AGs tend to be highly ambitious political folks who almost always are using the AG slot to run for higher office (Governor or Senator, typically). As such, they tend to focus on headline grabbing populist efforts, even when there’s absolutely no legal basis. Tech companies have been a major target, because the AGs like to blame them for any wrongs in the world. The reality, of course, is that in doing so, they are often making their own jobs harder. For example, the AGs hounded and hounded and hounded Craigslist over and over again about the fact that some prostitutes used the service. What they ignored was that Craigslist very closely cooperated with law enforcement to help them find and arrest those who broke the law via the service. Of course, most AGs simply grandstanded against Craigslist, and Craigslist blocked such ads. That didn’t decrease prostitution at all. It just dispersed it elsewhere, making it more difficult for law enforcement to actually stop the law breaking.

This is the crux of the issue: when you blame the service provider, rather than the actual law breakers, you don’t stop the law breaking. You just make it harder to capture the actual law breakers. In almost every way it’s counter productive unless the sole purpose of going after the service providers is to get yourself some headlines in which you can claim you “did something” to stop some societal ill, while actually making the problem that much worse.

While the AGs haven’t let the fact that they have no legal case against tech companies stop them from holding crazy press conferences where they attack those services anyway — what they’re now trying to do is change the law so that Section 230 no longer protects service providers if the AGs bring a case. In other words, they want a special exemption so that they can now legally blame service providers for the actions of their users, rather than just verbally blame them. Law professor Eric Goldman put together a fantastic paper on why this is a horrifically bad idea and would “dramatically chill” online innovation.

Now that the AGs official letter to Congress is out, we can see that it’s as bad (if not worse) than we expected. The problems start right from the very beginning:

Every day, children in the United States are sold for sex.

Yup. That’s the first sentence. They start right out with the bogus moral panic. Yes, every day children are sold for sex, and yes this is a very real problem (though the claims made by the AGs <a href=” target=”_blank”>are massively exaggerated). But blaming websites that are used in child prostitution efforts rather than using those sites to find and arrest those responsible isn’t just irresponsible behavior by the AGs, it’s downright horrifying. And yet, that’s what they want.

In instance after instance, State and local authorities discover that the vehicles for advertising the victims of the child sex trade to the world are online classified ad services, such as The involvement of these advertising companies is not incidental—these companies have constructed their business models around income gained from participants in the sex trade.

What they leave out is that the use of Backpage for such things only took off after the same AGs forced Craigslist to shut down such a service. In other words, shutting down such things doesn’t stop the sex trafficking. It just moves it elsewhere. And, again, when state AGs find such advertisements, why aren’t they using them to find and arrest those responsible?

But, as it has most recently been interpreted, the Communications Decency Act of 1996 (“CDA”) prevents State and local law enforcement agencies from prosecuting these companies.

And for a damn good reason: because it’s not those companies who are doing the sex trafficking.

This must change.

So that we, state Attorneys General, can sue innovative companies rather than doing our jobs and actually capturing sex traffickers.

It is ironic that the CDA, which was intended to protect children from indecent material on the internet,1 is now used as a shield by those who intentionally profit from prostitution and crimes against children.

No, it’s ironic that 49 state attorneys general, whose job should be to find and stop lawbreakers, are instead seeking to change the law to help those lawbreakers hide online, (with a side dose of killing off important innovations that help the public).

As online advertising of child prostitution goes unchecked, sex traffickers are able to expand their businesses, magnifying the scope of the problem. In the last few months alone, law enforcement agencies throughout the nation have linked sex-trafficking operations to internet advertisers. For example, on March 28, Miami police arrested a man for advertising the sex services of a 13-year-old girl on The perpetrator had tattooed his name across the girl’s eyelids, marking her as his property. Two months earlier, two men were arrested in Fairfax County, Virginia for prostituting four minors on And on April 10, four males and one female were arrested in St. Paul, Minnesota for running a prostitution ring of eight girls and women ages 15 to 40. The girls and women were advertised on These examples offer just a small sampling of the countless instances of child sex trafficking that occurs every day in the United States.

Actually, no, those seem like examples of law enforcement properly using the ads on Backpage to help them find and arrest some really evil people, which seems like a good thing. Changing the law to allow the AGs to sue Backpage means that these men won’t be as easy for the AGs to find and the sex trafficking will continue. How is that a good idea?

Federal enforcement alone has proven insufficient to stem the growth of internet-facilitated child sex trafficking. Those on the front lines of the battle against the sexual exploitation of children—State and local law enforcement—must be granted the authority to investigate and prosecute those who facilitate these horrible crimes.

Again, they stupidly seem to think that all they need to do is focus the blame on the internet services these sex traffickers use rather than on actually finding and arresting the sex traffickers. It’s incredible. It’s particularly shameful, by the way, to see California Attorney General Kamala Harris on the list, since (of all people) she should at least recognize that this simple action would do massive harm to Silicon Valley in her home state, by opening the door to stopping all sorts of user generated content innovations, due to the ridiculous threat that grandstanding attorneys general will take criminal action against them just because a user uses the tool to break the law. By the way, as far as I can tell, only one state attorney general chose not to sign the letter: Connecticut’s George Jepsen. [Update: As pointed out in the comments, Virginia’s AG didn’t sign on either (though the AG from the Virgin Islands did). Update 2: Also Wisconsin’s AG didn’t sign.] I’m not sure why, but considering his predecessor, Richard Blumenthal was one of the worst bogus grandstanders against tech companies, hopefully it’s because Jepsen is one of the only AGs who actually understands why Section 230 is a good thing, rather than the bogus horror that every one of his colleagues see.

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Comments on “State Attorneys General Want To Sue Innovators 'For The Children!'”

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That One Guy (profile) says:

Actually, this could be good...

If they are able to blame service providers like search engines and websites for the actions of their users, it’s not too much of a stretch to say that someone can blame, and sue, the state for harm incurred by say, driving on public roads, or any other state offered service.

Get hit by a drunk driver while traveling on the highway? Sue the state, they should have prevented it.

Fire department not quick enough to save your entire house when a fire starts? Sue the state, they obviously didn’t do enough to fund them.

Public utility goes out due to an accident, human or otherwise? Sue the state, they should have prevented it and are therefor responsible.

Makes just as much sense(read: none) after all.

That One Guy (profile) says:

On a more serious note though, using sexual abuse of children for nothing more than a PR stunt, and attempting to change things in such a way that it will make it even harder to find and punish the perpetrators of the crimes… these are a group of people that deserve complete and utter contempt, and should be given such a strong kick in the ass as they are booted out of their offices that they’d never be able to sit again.

sorrykb says:

The 50th AG

Hooray for one AG not signing on. No doubt this will be used against him (“My opponent supports child sex slavery!!!”) during the next AG election in Connecticut. Although maybe he was just on vacation…

On the plus side… well, there is no plus side to this idiocy. But it was nice to see Bloom County again – Thanks for that.

pixelpusher220 (profile) says:

Re: Virginia (of all places) also didn't sign on

No kidding, if there was a ‘looks like a pedophile’ category, Ken Cuccinelli would have that nailed. Just creepy.

How he didn’t line up a week in advance for this I have no idea – except of course, he’s running for Governor and perhaps is playing, gasp, politics with when he speaks his true values 🙂

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Virginia (of all places) also didn't sign on

While the running for governor thing is probably not irrelevant, I suspect it has more to do with his efforts against this sort of thing. He can already point to state laws he lobbied for on the subject passing, and a sex trafficking ring broken up that earned an assistant attorney general of his praise from the NCMEC. So signing onto a likely ineffective letter like this is less tempting.

It also increases the probability that he can turn to aides, ask “will this help?” get back an answer of “no, it’ll actually be harmful, don’t sign on.” and actually follow that advice.

I doubt many of the other AGs can say the same, so they’re focused on making it look like they’re doing something.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Virginia (of all places) also didn't sign on

Indeed, Virginia’s AG did not sign. Keep in mind though, Cuccinelli’s not exactly a forward thinking liberal. He’s the guy that was appealing to the Supreme Court in support of a Virginia law rendering oral and anal sex felonies, he supports abstinence-only sex education, thinks homosexuality is wrong, and has wanted to revoke citzenship for children of illegal immigrants born in the US.

On the flip side of all that for this case is that he has gone after actual sex trafficing, and helped get a few laws passed against it. So he probably felt less pressured to sign on to this, and had a higher likelyhood of knowing that it wouldn’t be particularly helpful.

Transmitte (profile) says:

It must be nice to use your office (Office of the AG) to grandstand and just absolutely shit away tax dollars to promote your own agendas, private and public. Investigations should happen and people roundly fired along with being brought up on charges of abuse of a public office.

But hey, that would actually be something that serves the constituency, and we just can’t have that.

madasahatter (profile) says:


If Section 230 is weakened could comments on websites be the next target? After all some very sharp, sometimes offensive statements are made by commenters when discussing an issue. By this idiotic “logic”, websites are responsible not only for their content but for the content of commenters also.

Or is this a fascist ploy to control independent thought? Free speech and a free press (not media companies) create problems for politicians because their collective lies could be exposed and careers ruined.

Anonymous Coward says:

this is exactly the same as what i read about David Cameron in the UK and what he’s going to make ISPs do. anyone with half a brain would know that what is said in this piece is oh so true, that it doesn’t get rid of the problem, it just makes it much harder to find those that are engaged in it. once Cameron has had his way and it is actually found by Police that the crimes are very much harder to pin on the perpetrators, perhaps he’ll listen to someone who actually knows what they are talking about. i just hope that there isn’t any increase in this perverted behaviour because of what yet another politician wants to do, just to get the headlines!! and dont forget that the public in the UK are still going to have the choice of whether to buy a newspaper or magazine containing nude images, they just wont have a choice about viewing them on line. now if that isn’t a typical, politicians hypocritical action, i dont know what is!! the man has to be demented for even dreaming of achieving anything meaningful out of this and he should hgave told the MP responsible, Perry, to back off, instead of wanting to get her name up in lights, before she screwed up any and all investigations into this!!

Norma Jean Almodovar (profile) says:

Re: How many AG's are pedophiles

You are so right. Look up Florida’s former Top ICE agent who crusaded so vehemently against child porn- Anthony Mangione. There are also lots and lots of cops who rape children.

Watchit (profile) says:


Internet Zen Master (profile) says:

Politically ambitious scumbags

Ever heard of Angela Corey? She’s Florida’s State Attorney.

The same one who saw a political opportunity when she charged Zimmerman with 2nd-degree murder back in April last year, (probably) because she thought it would look great for her re-election campaign. In my opinion, they should’ve charged him with manslaughter, the chances of convicting the guy for 2nd-degree murder were low even before the trial started, but that’s beside the point.

…Yeah, that went over well.

In other words, state attorneys are lower than politicians when it comes to waving the populist “for-the-children!” type flags around. Especially since it only takes one of them to ruin your day.

Norma Jean Almodovar (profile) says:

The actual number of children sold over the internet vs. cop pedophiles

JUST HOW SERIOUS IS THE CRISIS OF UNDERAGE PROSTITUTES NATIONWIDE? HERE ARE SOME ARREST/ RESCUE STATISTICS FROM THE FBI 2008 TO 2012 [these are the numbers and stats provided by the US Government, and are not estimates or guesses- but the number of persons actually taken into custody by law enforcement agents]

Operation Cross Country VI (2012)

June 20 through June 23 2012 by Federal Bureau of Investigation with cooperation from local police departments and the State Police and National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) -FYI: WHEN THE GOVERNMENT SAYS CHILDREN WERE ‘RESCUED,’ THEY MEAN ‘ARRESTED’-
2,500 state, local, and federal officers in
57 cities US cities RESULTING IN:
79 children “rescued” [under age 18]
104 alleged pimps arrested
Hmm….. that is a total of 183 arrests or 3.2 persons arrested per city and approximately 14 law enforcement agents per arrested individual….

If there were only 79 children arrested (rescued) that means that each child rescue/ arrest required 31 law enforcement agents per arrest; and if those 104 alleged pimps shared 79 child prostitutes, how did they make any money at all? That would be .75 prostitutes per pimp- how on earth did any of those alleged pimps make ANY money off their pimping efforts? Did they have some sort of child prostitute time share program? Yet the cops had 4 days to find more victims and pimps… does this sound like there is a crisis? And how old were the ‘children’? The ages of the arrested/ rescued children were not noted in the press release of this rescue operation…. but we know from the arrest stats from the FBI that the majority of underage persons arrested were 17… which, in many states, is over the age of consent. So why are they still considered ‘children’ unless the persons who call them ‘children’ have a vested interest in making people believe that most prostitutes are children? Perhaps because they get more money from the gullible public and the government when they are called children rather than teenagers or just ‘minors’?


69 Children Rescued, 885 Arrests in Operation Cross Country V 2011 (40 cities)= 954 total arrests / 23 arrests per city total and 1.7 minors arrested per city

50 Children Rescued, 700 Arrests in Operation Cross Country IV 2010 (36 cities)= 750 total arrests/ 20.83 arrests per city total and 1.3 minors arrested per city

48 Children Rescued, 571 Arrests in Operation Cross Country III 2009 (29 cities)= 619 total arrests 21 arrests per city total including adults/ 1.6 minors arrested per city

47 Children Rescued, 642 Arrests in Operation Cross Country II 2008 (29 cities)= 689 total arrests 23.75 arrests per city including adults/ 1.6 minors per city arrested

21 Children Rescued, 389 Arrests in Operation Cross Country I 2008? (16 cities) = 410 total arrests 25.6 arrests per city 1.3 minors per city

There are more cops who diddle children each year than are found through all these sting operations combined:

For more stats from the government which expose the lies these politicians tell,

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: No cloud without Section 230

And that will end the pirate streaming business without the need for TPP or Commercial Felony Streaming Act, since most of them use colocation services.

But even legitimate streaming services would be affected, since nearly video and audio stream out there goes though a hosting or colocation service.

If this goes through, say good-bye to Netflix, LoudCity, Live365, Hulu, and other popular streaming platforms. These services all run their streams through cloud/colocation services.

Anonymous Coward says:

While what they want is bad, at least they changed the their original language so that is pertains to exploitation of children.

Becuase the statute would still be quite broad, anything the states ordered blocked could be circumvented by an offshore VPN, and that power is only applicable to the Feds.

I could see offshore VPNs booming if even this slightly-less draconian version goes through.

Bella Robinson (user link) says:

In response to the 47 of the 50 state attorneys....

In response to the 47 of the 50 state attorneys general that have sent an hysterical letter to Congress seeking to obliterate the very important Section 230 of the CDA, Communication Decently Act, which protects free speech.,

by creating hysteria over children being exploited into sex trafficking, is extremists, self serving and irrational. It is not necessary to infringe and trample upon Americans right’s to free speech to advertise for consensual adults relationships under the guise of rescuing allegate teenager trafficking victims.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that these irresponsible policies have little effect in finding victims or protecting sex workers from stigma and violence, and discrimination.

If the national association of attorney generals, is really about rescuing exploited teens why are they not granting amnesty for for sex workers and clients who report child trafficking and violence against sex workers, rather advocating to erode Americans first amendment rights to free speech on the internet.

We respectful ask that you focus on investigating all the murdered sex workers, and work towards polices that allow sex worker to report these violent crimes and work toward hate crime + discrimination legislation. The policies that the national state attorney’s general association are advocating for will promote more violence against sex workers and future violate the civil rights of American citizens. This false agenda is costing hundreds of millions each year and if we follow the money, we can see it go to promoting violence and discrimination against sex workers.

What right does the government have in the bedrooms of consenting adults?

It is time to change the social perception that she wasn’t a person, she was a “prostitute”. No one wants to feel a sense of community or sameness with her. She was something other than us and therefore, we don?t need to feel fear or grief, at the fact or the manner of her death.”

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