Cathy Gellis' Favorite Techdirt Posts Of The Week

from the government-and-technology dept

Hello, Techdirt readers! I’m Cathy Gellis, an Internet and IP lawyer in the San Francisco Bay Area. You may have heard of me from the lawsuit Paul Levy and I filed against Charles Carreon to protect a blogger’s free speech rights and some of the blogging I did on Prenda Law over at Popehat. I also have been blogging for ages at and more recently at, a project I started in order to take a closer look at how the government has been trying to regulate and potentially punish technology use and development.

And that’s the lens I want to use to look back at last week’s posts.

It’s one thing for the government to pass laws that give citizens rights vis a vis each other. We see how the grant of these rights plays out, for instance, with most intellectual property law, and on that front this past week Techdirt covered one of the latest rounds in the Prenda saga, a powerful sanctions ruling by Judge Chen awarding the defendant the attorney fees he sought with some devastating findings as to the abusiveness of the litigation overall. It’s no picnic being on the receiving end of a civil suit, especially not one as unjustified as those promulgated by Prenda or the defamation suit filed by an AIDS denialist against one of his critics, all lawsuits that stand to be incredibly chilling towards people using this amazing communications technology, the Internet.

But what’s really chilling is when the government directly intercedes with the speech taking place over the Internet. Last week included news about UK prime minister David Cameron insisting that all UK ISPs filter the content that people consume on the Internet (and filter it according to what a company in China thinks is appropriate for people to view), which, on its face, is a direct assault on Internet speech as it interferes with the ideas people can communicate or consume. But sometimes the government assault is more indirect, as we see in the case of the state attorneys general demanding Congress amend 47 U.S.C. Section 230, a law that insulates Internet intermediaries from whatever liability may be manifest in content created by their users. Which is not to say that there never could be (or never should be) liability in that user-posted content; Section 230 merely requires the actual speaker to be held accountable for that content, not the Internet intermediaries who did not create it. What offends the attorneys general is that sometimes that content runs afoul of criminal law, and as currently written, Section 230 requires them to go after the actual creators of that content in order to punish them, not the intermediaries who had nothing to do with its creation, whom they would apparently prefer to target.

The attorneys general argue that the intermediaries do, in fact, have something to do with the creation of the content because but for the intermediaries that content would never have gotten posted. But that’s exactly right: but for Internet intermediaries absolutely no content gets posted on the Internet, and if we make it possible (and, indeed, likely) for an intermediary to be held liable (and in this case criminally liable) for all the content they intermediate, it will be too dangerous a proposition for an intermediary to enable even non-wrongful content to appear on their systems. As a consequence, whole swathes of legitimate content and ideas we currently get to enjoy on the Internet won’t be available.

And lest we think this chilling effect is a purely hypothetical concern, we saw it play out this week with KTVU demanding YouTube (an intermediary) remove the video of its anchors incorrectly listing the Asiana pilots’ names over the air, despite the fact that it remains (particularly as KTVU fires the people it believes responsible) an issue of public concern worthy of discussion. KTVU has this sort of leverage over YouTube because liability for intellectual property is already exempted from Section 230, meaning that the intermediary now has little choice but to remove content others posted through it in order to avoid having to potentially bear liability for it, even when such demands for deletion are nothing but a textbook case of censorship.

Of course, maybe there are good reasons certain Internet content should somehow be illegal, either civilly or criminally (for instance, <a href=”>maybe this Bitcoin outfit really was running a Ponzi scheme), and, subject to constitutional limitations, as a democratic society, we can make the law criminalize whatever we want it to in deference to those reasons. On a practical level, however, sometimes this lawmaking goes better than others, and last week Techdirt documented some of the highs and lots of the lows in lawmaking. One significant low is the continued development of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a law-creating treaty that, rather than being decided by the legislature Constitutionally-tasked with making law, is being negotiated in secret by the executive branch. Even if the TPP were to turn out to be the most wonderful treaty affecting US law in the most wonderful of ways, it fails utterly as an example of representative democracy, and the legal liabilities it stands to create are therefore of little legitimacy.

But even legislating through Congress can get messy, and we saw much of the mess illustrated this week with reference to the NSA. Of particular note, the House of Representatives narrowly defeated an attempt to defund the NSA’s data-collection practices, due at least in part to the apparent change of position of some representatives’ earlier stance on the Patriot Act and the technological and cultural (as well as legal and potentially political) illiteracy of other lawmakers. But Techdirt also reports that further attempts to declaw the NSA are continuing to be mounted.

The importance of doing this cannot be overstressed. Knowledge is power, and government knowledge of every detail of everyone’s lives, as documented by their digital paper trail, gives governmental organs way more power over people’s lives than they are constitutionally entitled to. Certainly there are times when the government may justly need information in order to legitimately prosecute. But when governmental appetite for information is insatiable, unchecked access to information leads to its own harm. For a horrific example, see last week’s post on the DOJ and FBI admitting they may have abused hair analysis, itself based on a form of private information, to wrongfully convict hundreds or even thousands of innocent people.
And when we see the government ruthlessly chase down people who spoke up to expose its abuses, threatening all who might offer refuge and mercilessly prosecuting those it catches, we are reminded why governmental police power must have limits, even in the digital world.

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “Cathy Gellis' Favorite Techdirt Posts Of The Week”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
Karl Olson says:

It’s one thing for the government to pass laws that give citizens rights vis a vis each other.

Considering your skepticism about giving citizens rights, what do you think is the proper framework for giving rights to citizens? Should we adopt a tiered scrutiny to consider case by case giving citizens their rights? Or would it be better to have some sort of expert administrative body that could determine more specifically what rights to grant to what citizens?

Ray says:

Re: Re:

I think the Constitution limiting the government and the Bill of Rights acknowledging the the citizen’s God given rights at birth that the government can’t infringe upon covered that nicely for the last 200 years.

I.e., some of these cases should never be heard in court period and violate the law by even doing so! Choosing not to chose it a choice and it has all the ramifications of choosing this or choosing that.

This web site has by far the best articles and comments anywhere on the web. It is so rare that we see real news designed to inform rather than shape an opinion it stands out like a rose in a weed patch.

Keep up the good fight on all fronts because the internet is the last peaceful battle in the war for total submission to the banksters that seem to control it all. Love this place!

Karl (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Considering your skepticism about giving citizens rights

You missed the entire point. It’s not about granting rights to citizens in general.

It’s about granting rights to certain citizens to act against the rights of other citizens. That was pretty clear with the phrase “vis a vis each other.”

So, I’ll put the same question to you. Should we adopt a tiered scrutiny to consider case by case which citizens have the legal ability to infringe on the rights of others? Or would it be better to have some sort of expert administrative body that could determine more specifically which citizens have the legal ability to take rights away from others?

Quinn says:

I can’t help the UK, but maybe I can help the USA.

I made a petition asking the current administration to create a from scratch, directly democratic civilian oversight committee whos job is to reduce the types of blocking/censorship internet access providers can do, and to ensure that this group has the power to enforce a requirement of making this information public.

Here’s a link, if you’re from the USA and want to sign.

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »

Follow Techdirt

Techdirt Daily Newsletter

Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Discord
The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...