Section 230 Matters. Congress Needs To Be Reminded Of That
from the it-really-does dept
If you represent a tech company, please consider signing our letter to Congress from tech companies about concerns regarding the latest attempt to dismantle Section 230 of the CDA in a manner that will be completely counterproductive to the stated goals of the bill. Sex trafficking is an incredibly serious issue, and we support efforts by law enforcement and various groups to fight it — but we are greatly concerned that the approach being put forth here will actually be counterproductive to that goal, and create numerous other problems.
As we’ve discussed over the past week, Congress has launched a highly questionable attempt to modify Section 230 of the CDA, ostensibly as an effort to takedown Backpage (ignoring (1) that they already passed another law two years ago targeting Backpage and then never used it (2) that the DOJ is already able to go after Backpage if it broke the law and may be investigating the company as we speak and (3) that Backpage has already shut down its adult section), but which will actually create havoc for basically the entire internet. It will do a variety of damaging things, including opening up every tech platform to frivolous lawsuits from individuals and fishing expeditions from states Attorneys General, if anyone uses any part of a platform in a manner that touches on sex trafficking. We’ve already discussed how the bill could kill Airbnb, for example.
But, really, the worst part of the bill is that it’s entirely counterproductive. The tech industry may not be experts in trafficking, but we now have decades of experience dealing with what happens when you blame platforms for the actions of their users — and the bill here won’t help deal with trafficking, but could make a bad problem worse. CDA 230 works by encouraging platforms to moderate their content, by making sure that any attempts to moderate don’t make the platform liable for the actions of users. This enables platform companies to freely monitor usage and manage their platforms responsibly. But under the new bill, should it become law, any “knowledge” of trafficking activity using the platform puts the platform itself at risk of violating both civil and criminal law. As such, any monitoring behavior is likely to be used against the platform. This only incentivizes companies to take a total “hands-off” approach to policing their own platform. And this is doubly ridiculous because the tech industry has worked closely with law enforcement over the years to combat trafficking, creating a variety of tech platforms and using big data to help find, target and stop trafficking. But under this bill, participating in those programs very likely will be used against these platforms. And this would be a real tragedy as it could lead to more trafficking, rather than less.
And, on top of that, as we saw when Craigslist was targeted in the past and trafficking just moved over to Backpage, the trafficking will continue and will move to platforms less interested in working with law enforcement (perhaps overseas platforms). The end result: (1) doesn’t stop trafficking, (2) pushes tech companies not to cooperate for fear of greater liability and (3) creates massive other problems for those tech companies in the way of increased liability and frivolous lawsuits. It’s a bad idea on nearly every front.
Mike Godwin has summarized the problems of the bill nicely with the following analogy:
… the bill would be as if Congress decided that FedEx was legally liable for anything illegal it ever carries, even where it?s ignorant of the infraction and acts in good faith. That would be a crazy notion in itself, but rather than applying only to FedEx’s tech equivalents?the giants like Google and Facebook?it also would apply to smaller, less well-moneyed services like Wikipedia. Even if the larger internet companies can bear the burden of defending against a vastly increased number of prosecutions and lawsuits?and that?s by no means certain?it would be fatal for smaller companies and startups. Amending Section 230’s broad liability protection for internet service providers would expand the scope of criminal and civil liability for those services in ways that would force the tech companies to drastically alter or eliminate features that users have come to rely on. It could strangle many internet startups in their cribs.
Because of all of this, our think tank organization, the Copia Institute, teamed up with our friends at Engine to put together an open letter from tech companies to Congress about this bill. We’ve put it up at 230matters.com. Some great tech/internet companies have already signed onto the letter, including Reddit, GitHub, Cloudflare, Medium, Automattic, Rackspace, Tucows and more. We’ll be sending a second version of the letter in a few weeks, so if you represent a tech/internet company and have the authority to do so, you can sign the letter on that site (if you work at such a company and don’t have the authority, please forward this to someone who does…). We all support the larger goal of stopping sex trafficking, but as these tech companies know all too well, this bill will actually harm that goal by making it harder for the companies to help in that process.