The Senate Is Close To Undermining The Internet By Pretending To 'Protect' The Children

from the 230-matters dept

Protecting children from harm is a laudable goal. But, as we’ve noted for many years, grandstanding politicians have a fairly long history of doing a lot of really dangerous stuff by insisting it needs to be done “for the children.” That doesn’t mean that all “for the children” laws are bad, but they do deserve scrutiny, especially when they appear to be reactive to news events, and rushed out with little understanding or discussion. And that’s a big part of our concern with SESTA — the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act — a “for the children” bill. With a name like that, it’s difficult to oppose, because we’re all in favor of stopping sex trafficking. But if you actually look at the bill with any understanding of how the internet works, you quickly realize that it will be tremendously counterproductive and would likely do a lot more to harm trafficking victims by making it much more risky for internet services to moderate their own sites, and to cooperate with law enforcement in nabbing sex traffickers using their platforms.

There’s a hearing tomorrow morning about SESTA, and the bill is quickly moving forward, with very few Senators expressing any real concern about the impact it might have on free speech or the internet — despite the fact that a ton of tech companies and free speech advocates have spoken out about their concerns. Instead, over and over again, we’re hearing false claims about how it’s just Google that’s concerned. Last month, we’d put up a page on our Copia site about the bill with a letter to Congress signed by a few dozen tech companies. Today we’re offiically announcing a standalone site,, that explains why CDA 230 is so important, highlighting the many different parties concerned with the bill, from the ACLU and EFF to tech companies to think tanks and more. The site also hosts the letter that we sent to Congress with our concerns about the bill, put together with the group Engine Advocacy and signed by over 40 companies including Kickstarter, Reddit, Tucows, NVCA, Github, Automattic, Cloudflare, Rackspace, Medium and more.

That’s not “just Backpage” or “just Google”. The letter was signed by internet companies big and small that know just how damaging SESTA will be — not just to their ability to operate online, but to their own efforts to proactively moderate their own sites, or even to work with law enforcement to help stop trafficking online. In other words, this bill is a double whammy: (1) it will greatly harm innovation and free speech online and (2) do so in a way that is likely to make trafficking worse. Unfortunately, supporters of the bill are falsely claiming that being against this bill is the equivalent of supporting sex trafficking. That’s dangerous and leaves no room for actual discussion about why the bill will be so counterproductive.

The letter is still open for more signatures — so if you represent a company that is concerned about this bill, please consider signing on.

With Congress paying attention to SESTA this week, you can expect more posts from us exploring the problems with the bill and with the arguments in its favor. We already had one post earlier today debunking the attacks on EFF and CDT, and more are forthcoming…

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Comments on “The Senate Is Close To Undermining The Internet By Pretending To 'Protect' The Children”

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Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:

Re: Protecting children from harm is a laudable goal.

Law enforcement has the responsibility to find and arrest the perpetrators of human trafficking crimes. By sending such people further underground—which the passing of SESTA and the destruction of Section 230 safe harbers would do—law enforcement loses a potential method of finding those who commit those crimes. How would that help anyone?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Protecting children from harm is a laudable goal.

It is triggered based on certain phrases.

for example, if you mention certain nations/states and certain activities of a negative or hyper reactive chemical nature then you get flagged for review. Even if you are just talking about a past event that happened with certain key words in context you get flagged.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Fight the good fight Don!

Clarification: the “Don” in Don Quixote isn’t a first name; it’s a title.

I believe, before he went mad and started thinking he was a knight, his first name was Alonso. However, I don’t know if, in the persona of Quixote, whether he was ever given such any first name.

JMT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Protecting children from harm is a laudable goal.

"It’s used as a censorship tool here…"

Then it’s an extraordinarily ineffective one, because everybody can very easily see everything you post. It’s like you don’t actually know what the word even means.

"…and everyone knows it."

When that’s your best attempt at proof you know your claim fails badly.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Protecting children from harm is a laudable goal.

” allowed to censor (or not censor) your comments thanks in part to section 230, which allows them to police their comments without becoming liable.”

This seems to be backwards, is there a reason for that?
I do not think your post accurately describes what 230 does.
I thought 230 isolates the site from liability for what is posted by users, not what is “censored” by the site.

Am I wrong?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Protecting children from harm is a laudable goal.

I thought 230 isolates the site from liability for what is posted by users, not what is "censored" by the site.

It’s both:

"[L]awsuits seeking to hold a service liable for its exercise of a publisher’s traditional editorial functions – such as deciding whether to publish, withdraw, postpone or alter content – are barred."

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Congress is Wonderful & Wise

Quite a tangled web-weave results… when Congress acts unconstitutionally to “regulate” the internet. There is no limit to Congressional mischief when fundamental law is ignored.

Primary problem is that the ‘Communications Decency Act of 1996 (CDA)’ is totally non-Constitutional, along with its parent Telecommunications Act.
SCOTUS struck down the most egregious parts of CDA in 1997 as unconstitutional, but failed in its duty to eliminated the entire mess. Congress was left free to merrily intervene in the internet & citizen communications… at its political whim.

As usual, the left still luvs government regulation of communications — but just can’t understand why those great folks in government keep acting against the public interest.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Children don’t benefit from having platforms willing and able to host their speech?

Making it harder to find people exploiting children is somehow protecting them?

Mike isn’t the one proposing a law that will not only not work, but cause massive collateral damage, and as such he isn’t the one that needs to defend his position.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Showing this will harm children...

Section 230 assures that hosts of websites aren’t liable for the content provided by end users. SESTA creates an exception, when human traffickers are using a site, say to advertise their trafficked sex workers.

When a forum or classified-ad service (like Craigslist or Backpage) encounters something criminal on their site (say, a fraud racket), section 230 means they can contact law enforcement and cooperate with an investigation without fear of being persecuted themselves.

Creating an exception for 230 regarding incidents of human trafficking means a website would have to do whatever it takes to prevent trafficking ads. The most obvious option is to stop allowing for user-generated content. This is what’s happening with news services and media services that don’t depend on user-generated content.

For the rest, it’s an unsolvable task. Even among big companies that can afford AI-driven automated moderation, that can be tricked, and is. But I’ll get to that.

Small businesses that could not afford defending themselves in court will all be doomed. All it would take is the presence of human traffickers, and a victim to decide to sue the company. Many companies that might start won’t. Many companies that are operational might have to close than their hosts face jailtime.

This probably includes those non-profits that provide online support services for human trafficking victims.

It also means companies cannot cooperate with law enforcement. They can’t report incidents if doing so is going to leave them liable to criminal prosecution.

This also won’t help arrest any actual traffickers, just the people whose sites they use.

It’s kinda like outlawing or hobbling motor vehicles because some people commit crimes with them.

Then there’s a matter of the monumental task of moderating sites that rely on user-content. A websites large enough to profit off user content require huge numbers of users, way too many to moderate by human power alone. In cases like Craigslist, they use algorithmic formulas (such as keywords) to flag ads for moderation. They also give end users the ability to flag (a couple of ticks may get a moderator’s attention, where many ticks simply kill the ad). This wouldn’t be enough to stop human trafficking ads entirely. So sites like Craigslist or Backpage will become untenable.

Once those are gone, traffickers will resort to the same methods that other black-markets have used. They’ll latch onto any forum that they can, and turn that into their market.

Large companies like Google have tried create AI driven systems to automate screening for human trafficking, much like Youtube’s system to screen for DMCA violations. They would work about just as well., which is to say they’d block legal, unrelated speech, including trafficking victims talking about their experiences.

Meanwhile traffickers will do everything they can to get their advertising through to their clients. And our best AI is still susceptible to what is called adversarial examples which confuse the crap out of neural learning systems.

And because human trafficking is all about making money, these guys don’t care that they’re wrecking the internet for the rest of us so they can have their bling and their wads of cash.

So, how will this harm children, you ask?

~ Those children who are trafficked will not be able to get help or support on line, which for some is their only safe venue.

~ Incidents of trafficking will just go dark. They won’t get reported to law enforcement (not from webhosts, at least). Actual traffickers will still traffic, they’ll just continue to do so where law enforcement can’t find them.

~ Those children who are not trafficked will lose a lot of kid-based internet services, since they’ll be affected much like the rest of the internet.

~ Then there’s the general hit the economy’s going to take when we can no longer sell our used cars and wall-units-of-doom on the internet. This doesn’t specifically target kids, but they’re certainly within the blast zone.

OldGeezer (profile) says:

I remember seeing a program years ago where a task force was monitoring Craig’s list for underage girls. They already had warrants to ID the pimps and were busting them at the same time they were rescuing the kids. If you have ever watched To Catch a Predator you know how valuable these resources can be. These crimes against children are going to happen. These kind of laws will just make the bastards harder to catch.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:bringing value

The value of labor is EXACTLY the same as the value of a pizza, a car, or any other good offered for sale.

The balancing of supply and demand (see Adam Smith 1776, “A Treatise Into the Cause of the Wealth of Nations”) determines the “worth” of any and all things.

What you are suggesting is that we subvert the market by paying more than someone is economically worth. That action, in turn, causes other distortions in the marketplace which can lead to shortages of valuable things. Things like childcare so parents can work, medical care for children, housing, etc.

By distorting the market, you do more harm than good to those who you so dearly want to protect the most.

Ironic — ain’t it?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Another fantastic idea!

Let’s overpay people such that a business will automate that job and the parents will be put out of work. Then, the parents can spend more quality time with the kids.

Of course, they’ll live in squalor and be dependent on food stamps and the like.

You’re batting a 1,000!

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

A mind is a terrible thing to waste.

There are precious few companies that get actual subsidies from the government. Most of those are in the so-called “clean energy” arena and the subsidies were set up during the prior administration.

With that said, subsidies have absolutely nothing to do with the price of tea in China or the price of labor.

Oh, and by the way, I didn’t mention anything about regulation. Or for that matter, government subsidies. Those are simply your creations that add nothing of substance to the discussion at hand.

The next time you get a personal subsidy from the government, please spend at least some of it on education. We’ll all be better off for it.

Groaker (profile) says:

Crimes against children are anathema, but the overwhelming majority of such acts are committed by family members, friends of the family, and persons in positions of authority over the child.

Those who lie about the numbers of children abused by strangers, are attempting to create outrage and cover up something else. Just what is it that they are hiding?

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: There is a lot of family trafficking...

There’s also a lot of non-family trafficking.

More commonly, dysfunction within a family will drive a kid to seek emotional support outside of the household, which makes them super susceptible to pimps.

In my own town there was a psychiatric teen outreach program sponsored by the YMCA and they’d catch kids in troubled homes and try to keep them from getting into other trouble. But I don’t know their success rate.

These days, foster kids and runaways are the easiest marks in the US (outside the US, small children are collected and exported out of China).

But yes, the worst betrayal is when your parents are also your pimps. It’s common but not the most common.

MyNameHere (profile) says:

Nothing shocking here

Let me preface my comments by saying that I think the section 230 protections are overbroad, and have long since passed the level of being a protection against something, and instead has become a shield for some pretty bad business models.

I also think that the “for the children” part is only a guise to deal with the bigger overall issue of prostitution and proximatism (aka pimping).

Okay, so where do we start? Well, let’s consider the idea of availability. Prostitution is generally illegal in the US (with the exception of parts of Nevada, if I remember correctly). After literally centuries of legal bickering and playing games, we have ended up with “escort” and “full body massage” services, and a whole list of secret word games about tipping and being generous and all that sort of stuff, all in the name of dancing around the law.

The internet has clearly improved communication in this field. Online classified ad sites, escort portals and so on are common. They have made prostitution literally something that is easily available at your finger tips, 24 hours per day.

This is the sort of thing that use to be banished to the weekly inkies that nobody read for anything much else except the sex ads. Most major newspapers had long since gotten away from accepting any ads that even suggested the stuff, and many of them don’t even have classified ads anymore anyway. Weekly inkies are a dying breed, in no small part because the sex ads have pretty much left the building.

Now, in the case of CL and others, the sex ads are the only ones they charge for. Why? Because there is plenty of cash money running around over there, and they are willing to pay handsomely for sites that turn a reasonably blind eye towards the content. They make their income in no small part from these ads. New York Time reported in 2010 that CL was taking in more than 30 million a year on sex ads (which CL denied… naturally!).

The real issue though isn’t the money – it’s the availability of information and the ease by which contact is made. Widespread advertising for prostitution, even when gently coded to avoid the law, facilitates the illegal trade, plain and simple.

For the hardcore sex addict, they will find it no matter what. They know locations and they know street corners and they will always find their fix. But the real issue is in making the advertising prevalent and common, you enable people who aren’t adept to enter into that world. On the other side, you make it possible for a pimp to more easily market his wares and to find people willing to pay.

How desperate is Backpage to remain in this business? They have gone to the length of subverting store brand gift cards so people can buy credits for sex ads…

While there is certainly SOME advantage to leaving ads up and trying to play whac-a-mole with thousands of anonymous pimps, the reality is that changing the number of people willing or able to connect and pay for sex changes things dramatically. It’s not an either / or situation. It’s something that should be attacked from both ends.

The problem with attacking it by going after the pimps is that the legal system and case law makes it an incredibly hard job to do. While the police can often “sting” the girls who work openly and arrest them they rarely get the pimps. The girls are generally on a legal revolving door that has them out before the ink is dry on the report.

For the more severe child prostitution issue, those people aren’t going to give it up easily and fall into a police trap just like that. These pimps and groups are well trained and well versed in what they need to do in order to avoid getting arrested, they are careful what they say and careful how they work. Burner phones, drop points, disposible credit cards (or gift cards) and never, ever directly accepting cash for sex – it’s all done to avoid prosecution.

When law enforcement does arrest one, the court process is prolonged, expensive, and one undotted I is enough to kick them loose. Mike, you more than anyone should know from your recent experience that even a simple civil matter can run 6 months without even trying. A criminal case can run years, and hundreds of man hours for the police and the court system to prosecute someone who will be out before the trial is even really over.

Finally, let me say this. The changes to the law appear to be quite narrow in focus. This does not rip up section 230 and throw it in the garbage, it creates a very specific exception for certain types of activities. Section 230 is overly broad and has allowed all sorts of business models that would never make it in the real world. It’s time to stop at least this very specific abuse. Section 230 does matter, but so do the lives of the victims here.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Nothing shocking here

The whole point of that section 230, is that the site owners to not have to approve everything that the user submits before it is published. Any exception to that protection eliminates the sites ability allow user content to appear without someone looking at and approving the content.

Also the scale of user submitted content is such that it exceeds the ability of many sites to examine and approve before publication without destroying the sites usefulness.

Backpage staying in business depends on their being no exception to section 230, as that is what allows them to offer an automated advertising service. The problem is not identifying things that should be removed, or not published when they are looked at, but rather looking at everything that is submitted to sites that allow user posting of any form of content.

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: Nothing shocking here

Not going to respond to the rest of your mostly uninformed comment, but just will point out how wrong you are on this graf:

Now, in the case of CL and others, the sex ads are the only ones they charge for. Why? Because there is plenty of cash money running around over there, and they are willing to pay handsomely for sites that turn a reasonably blind eye towards the content. They make their income in no small part from these ads. New York Time reported in 2010 that CL was taking in more than 30 million a year on sex ads (which CL denied… naturally!).

CL did NOT charge for adult ads until the state AGs force them to as part of their ganging up on CL. Specifically they demanded that CL charge for them to limit them as part of a "settlement" to stop the AGs from going after CL. Prior to that the only ads CL charged for was jobs.

Amazingly, AFTER the AGs forced CL to charge for adult ads, THEN they turned around and started screaming about how crazy it was that CL was profiting off of prostitution and CL shut down the whole section. And they did that in 2010.

So, you know, you’re just 7 years out of date and wrong on the details. But, other than that, A+ for effort.

MyNameHere (profile) says:

Re: Re: Nothing shocking here

Nothing like re-writing history, right?

“The AGs and Craigslist agreed in 2008 that adult ads shouldn’t be free, and that posters of the ads should have to pay by valid credit card. The theory behind the move was that criminals wouldn’t want to post an ad for fear of exposing themselves to prosecution. Moreover, Craigslist pledged that all revenues from the ads would go to charity. But then last May, Craigslist doubled the fee for such ads from $5 to $10 and, at the same time, said it would manually review the ads in an effort to better police the site. (Perhaps the increased revenue funded that extra effort? The press release doesn’t say.) ” (source AOL finance)

See, the point of using a valid credit card was to make customers accountable for their ads. The idea wasn’t to limit the number of ads by cost, but limit the number of ads by creating responsibility… you know, getting rid of the anonymous factor.

What did CL do? They started making income and cranked the price. The appear to have used the most lax credit card processing possible that didn’t require any customer validation, and when they got caught at it, they branched out into gift cards and the like.

The goal was for CL to “know their customer” (similar to banking rules), but instead they just used it as a way to make a pile of cash.

History is a fact, you can’t re-write it that easily!

Ninja (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Nothing shocking here

I hope you see the huge cognitive dissonance between what you said before Mike called you on your bullshit and after. Because you first attacked CL for charging and then you say it’s ok because it identifies users.

Aside from your own peculiar history revisionism to fit your distorted opinion of course.

MyNameHere (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Nothing shocking here

What’s the issue? By the agreement, CL was only suppose to charge a nominal fee – it was all about getting a valid credit card and therefore a customer name attached to the records. Instead, CL charged a higher fee, and then DOUBLED the fee and rapidly started heavily profiting off of the adult ads – and appear to be doing everything they can to encourage non-traditional payments to allow for anonymous ads.

Unless of course you think that the millions they are making are actually being given to charity…

Ninja (profile) says:

Re: Nothing shocking here

“Let me preface my comments by saying that I think the section 230 protections are overbroad, and have long since passed the level of being a protection against something, and instead has become a shield for some pretty bad business models.”

This sentence alone should suffice to know you would be full of bullshit. I did read on anyway. And I wasn’t wrong. Bad has a very peculiar definition in your dictionary, no?

So let’s put this out of the way: prostitution is like marijuana. It’s a crime because a small group of moralist assholes insist in making established, wide-spread and generally tolerated stuff illegal. This is bad for the girls/guys selling their work and for the customers looking for them along with victims of real trafficking because it makes police waste resources in perfectly good, consensual stuff.

As for the services, Backpage seems to have engaged in pretty bad behavior which is why they are being charged under EXISTING laws and will probably end up in jail. CDA 230 did not protect them at all. What CDA 230 did protect was Craiglist because even with the DOJ after them they could not produce anything against them to start a lawsuit much less to put them in jail because it was something their USERS were doing and CL was helping law enforcement when proper warrants were produced. Please provide citations for what you said though it’s clear by now that even if there are citations even the government could not find evidence of what you said. Remember that demanding a payment for adult ads does not mean profiting of traffic because adult content != sex traffic.

And don’t come with “omg, going after the ones actually committing the crime is hard so let us extract money from the platforms instead!”. Law enforcement should be doing their investigative jobs, not screwing entire platforms that are useful for thousands, millions just because a tiny portion of it is used for crime. You are pretty lazy, no?

Ah your paragraph on child prostitution. If they are that careful they are not using such services not to leave traces. And if they are stupid enough to use they are going to get caught because as said before they cooperate with law enforcement when due process is followed and they have knowledge of the criminal activity. Not general knowledge because every single service that allows user input is used for criminal purposes. End of the story. You are only liable if you have specific knowledge of specific crimes being carried on your network. We still don’t prosecute Ford for crimes perpetrated using their cars.

And then you complain about due process. Omg, it’s slow! It’s expensive! People should not have access to this, they should just shut up and go to jail based on the govt say so! Screw false positives, they can rot in prison for the greater good! Despicable, no?

The changes are far from narrow. You say 230 matters but you are ok with a law undermining the core of it while current laws are far enough to do what this abhorrent law pretends to do in the surface. I don’t expect you to change your mind, you are just a plain moron but it’s important to counter your bullshit.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Nothing shocking here

Have you seen the posts MyNameHere/Whatever/horse with no name/Just Sayin’ has written about warrants? The guy fucking hates the things on sight. Oversight and procedure are cancer to him. That’s why he’s such a fan of the NSA.

You’ll see him spout about victims that law enforcement can’t put in the effort to find and help, but you’ll never see him criticize LOVEINT.

ECA (profile) says:


I looked into this recently..
Its strange that they have specific numbers of Those taken into a comment to me about CHILD Sex trafficking..

The suggestion is that there are 100,000 Every year in this nation..
WHO has the power to hide/abduct 100,000 children and it NOT being in the news paper? The number is huge for what it is. 275 children PER DAY ???
These numbers are garnered from Missing children, runaways, SOLD children and numbers I cant find..

Underworld is a hard thing to say, but Anyone/group that can HIDE/HOLD/Capture 100,000 persons Every year, is REALLY DEEP DOWN THERE..and have ALLOT of money to back them up.

This is NOT something that could have been created recently. its to BIG. and the Privacy behind it is to overwhelming. If we had a virus running around this country with THIS many deaths, it would be in the news. I say death because this is removing them from society NEVER to be seen. And keeping them alive for 10 years, means there are 1 million in THIS SYSTEM.. AND the number of OWNERS of these children would have to be CLOSE to this number. As I HOPE they dont throw away 1 per year..(I can only prey) ml

The Emergency alert system was installed long ago. But getting Down to the Numbers..

” and only 115 were “stereotypical kidnappings,” defined in one study as “a nonfamily abduction perpetrated by a slight acquaintance or stranger in which a child is detained overnight, transported at least 50 miles, held for ransom or abducted with the intent to keep the child permanently, or killed.””

“But in other ways, the NCIC may understate the figures. Many missing persons aren’t reported at all—a 1997 study estimated that only 5 percent of nonfamily abductions (in which a nonfamily member detains a child using force for more than an hour) get reported to police. “

Other points in the article..

Even if the First numbers are true.. With an Average of 5-6 per STATE EVERY DAY…the emergency alert system would be going off ALL THE TIME.. or there are ALLOT of people, having kids JUST TO SELL THEM..

There is only 1 way ANYTHING can be done and its to TAG every child AT BIRTH, AT THE HOSPITAL with a Satellite tracker..

BANNING any type of free speech only makes THINGS EASIER to hide what is being done…

NOW another comment…
Who remembers that the CIA boasted that it was/can/WILL monitor everything on the net??
And I even posted stats how they ALREADY TRIED AND DIED, TRYING to do this..

So HOW to MAKE this happen, is to FORCE OTHERS TO DO YOUR JOB..
This is a backdoor situation. they want to Create a LARGE HOLE in 230..and they want the companies to monitor ALL of it, FOR THEM..and if they do random scanning and find 1 company has NOT REPORTED 1 thing (EVEN IF, the CIA did a test post on the site(FALSE POSITIVE CHECK)) they will CAN, and probably WILL threaten and CLOSE DOWN the company..

Can I ask.
How is it that the USA Prompts us that OTHER COUNTRIES..
This, that and kill off sections of THERE OWN INTERNET..

And for Some reason it seems we are AS BAD, or even WORSE, then those other countries??

A BACKDOOR trick to have 2-3 things happen, so that the LARGE CORPS can take over the smaller companies.. monitoring the internet by PRIVATE concerns… ITS NOT prostitution, they are having a problem with.. ITS FOR THE CHILDREN, is not a concern..

they are trying to cover bases, with a LIE. Prostitution ISNT against the law in many countries. the KIDS ARENT READING IT OR SEARCHING FOR IT IN THE ADVERTS..

Its a boondoggle a subterfuge.. and confusion will rule the day…

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