Senator Blumenthal Happy That SESTA Will Kill Small Internet Companies
from the this-is-a-problem dept
So, earlier today the Senate Commerce Committee held a two and a half hour hearing about SESTA — the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act of 2017. The panelists were evenly split, with California Attorney General Xavier Becerra and Yiota Souras from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children being in support of the bill, and Professor Eric Goldman and Abigail Slater from the Internet Association worrying about the impacts of SESTA (notably, both highlighted that they’re not against all changes to CDA 230, they just want to be quite careful and are worried about the language in this bill). I was actually somewhat surprised that the hearing wasn’t as bad as it could have been. There certainly was some grandstanding, and some insistence that because SESTA says it will go after sex trafficking, it obviously will — but many Senators did seem willing to listen to concerns about the bill and how it’s written. Much attention was paid to the sketchy “knowledge” standard in the bill, which we wrote about this morning. And that’s good — but there was a fair bit of nonsense spewed as well.
Perhaps the most problematic comments were from the bill’s co-author, Senator Richard Blumenthal, who has been attacking CDA 230 since his time as Connecticut’s Attorney General. While you can watch the entire hearing, I created a short clip of Blumenthal’s questions (which, oddly, C-SPAN won’t let me embed here) so I’ll transcribe it:
Blumenthal: I think I’ve said why I support this legislation, which I helped craft, and we’ve tried to do it carefully. And we tried to listen to the industry. We’ve tried to listen really closely to some of the concerns that have been raised this morning by Mr. Goldman. For example, the idea that this legislation will cause sex trafficking to — I’m using your word — proliferate. Hard to believe. Mr. Becerra, what do you think and will this measure cause sex trafficking to proliferate?
So… the idea that Blumenthal listened carefully is laughable on its face. He’s been fighting this issue since at least 2010 when he went after Craigslist for ads he didn’t think they should have on the site. And in Blumenthal’s own testimony he admitted that forcing Craigslist to change how it worked only led to sex trafficking ads moving from Craigslist — which cooperated very closely with law enforcement — to Backpage and expanded their reach. I’m at a loss as to why we should take Blumenthal’s word on what will happen when he admits his own actions targeted at sex trafficking in the past made the problem worse. To then mock Prof. Goldman for suggesting the same might happen here is… quite incredible.
Also, interesting that rather than asking Goldman to clarify his position first (he does later), Blumenthal starts by asking Becerra to back him up.
Becerra: I can’t agree with what Professor Goldman has said. I think it’s just the opposite. If we have a standard in place, then I believe the stakeholders within the internet community will come forward in ways we’ve seen before, but even more vigoroulsy, because they’ll understand what the standard is, and I think that’s so very important to make it clear for folks. The most important thing, Senator Booker sorta pointed this out, is we need to get the opponents of this measure to explain, in detail, what they would propose in place. Otherwise, it’s always a moving target. It’s Whac-a-mole. Someone needs to give us what a better bill looks like.
So, this is also bizarre and wrong. First, much of the discussion from Goldman and Slater (and us) was about the lack of any clarity around the “standard.” The bill says that “knowing conduct” that “assists, supports or facilitates” sex trafficking can make a platform guilty of civil and criminal violations of the law. But “knowing conduct” is not clarified. And as we’ve seen in other contexts, including in the copyright realm, years-long fights can happen in court over what “knowledge” might mean. The famous YouTube/Viacom fight, that went on for nearly a decade, was almost entirely focused on whether or not YouTube had knowledge of infringement, and whether the law required “specific” knowledge or “general” knowledge. Nothing in this bill clarifies that.
Even worse, the term “knowing conduct” is dangerously vague. It could be read to mean that if the site does something that it knows that it is doing, and it leads to facilitating sex trafficking — even if the site doesn’t know about that outcome — it would constitute “knowing conduct.” Goldman had pointed this exact problem out earlier in the hearing, so for Becerra to insist that this is a clear standard is ludicrous.
Becerra is also confused if he thinks this will lead internet companies to “more vigorously” come forward. Coming forward with evidence of sex trafficking will then be turned around on them as proof of “knowledge.” With this law in place, why would any internet company be more willing to come forward when that only increases liability?
Finally, the idea that opponents need to come forward with other language is similarly weird. SESTA’s supporters are the ones demanding a massive change in the underpinning of the internet. Shouldn’t the burden be on them to prove that this will help and not hurt? And, on top of that, it also ignores the fact that many opponents have come forward with different language (which I know as a fact because someone ran some alternative language by me a few weeks ago, and again earlier this week). So either Becerra doesn’t know that or he’s being disingenuous.
I’ll cut the next section where Blumenthal says (misleadingly) that a proposal put forth from tech companies was to curtail or “eliminate” the ability of State AGs to pursue violations of the law (the proposal I saw simply clarified when and how they could go after sites) and Becerra eagerly says that would be terrible, as you’d expect.
Blumenthal: Let me ask, Mr. Goldman, do you really believe that this law would cause sex trafficking to proliferate?
Goldman: Thank you, Senator, for the opportunity to clarify that. Indeed, my concern is that we already see a number of efforts on the part of legitimate players to reduce sex trafficking promotion. To the extent that any of those companies decide ‘I am better off turning off my efforts across the board, to try to reduce the knowledge that I have,’ then that creates a larger number of zones that the sites will not be taking the legitimate effort that we want them to take. It creates an environment where there’s more places for that to occur.
This is an excellent and succinct explanation of the problem. Under SESTA, the “knowledge” standard is so vague and unclear, that actually doing what Congress wants — policing sex trafficking — creates “knowledge” and makes these companies liable under the law. Blumenthal, of course, doesn’t seem to get it — or doesn’t care.
Blumenthal: You know, I have a higher opinion of the industry than you do. I really believe that this law will raise the bar, will increase consciousness, and that far from trying to evade, or, in fact, deny themselves knowledge, so as to avoid any accountability, they will be more energetic. I absolutely really believe that most of these companies want to do the right thing and that this law will give them an increased impetus and incentive to do so.
WHAT?!? First off, if the idea is to give companies a greater impetus and incentive to do what they already want to do (as Blumenthal claims…) then threatening them with criminal and civil penalties for simply “knowing” that their platforms are used for illegal activity seems like a totally fucked up way of doing so. If you want to encourage platforms to do the right thing, then why is the entire bill focused on punishing platforms for merely knowing that their platform was illegally used? Second, if Blumenthal truly had a higher opinion of tech companies, why is he misrepresenting what Goldman said, and saying that companies would choose to avoid knowledge to “avoid accountability”? That’s not the issue at all — and is, indeed, self-contradictory with Blumenthal’s own statements. Companies want to do the right thing to reduce sex trafficking, but this bill puts them in legal jeopardy for even researching if their platforms are used that way. That’s the point that Goldman was trying to make and Blumenthal totally misrepresents.
And then it gets worse. Goldman points out a separate issue, noting that big companies like Google and Facebook may have the resources to “do more” but startups without those resources won’t be able to take the steps necessary to avoid liability under the law:
Goldman: There’s no doubt that the legitimate players will do everything they can to not only work with the law enforcement and other advocates to address sex trafficking and will do more than they even do today. At the same time, the industry is not just the big players. There is a large number of smaller players who don’t have the same kind of infrastructure. And for them they have to make the choice: can I afford to do the work that you’re hoping they will do.
Okay, and here’s where things get absolutely fucked up. Note what Goldman is clearly saying here: this bill will wreak havoc on startups who simply can’t afford to monitor everything that people do on their platforms. And then, Blumenthal’s response is to say that those startups are criminals who should be prosecuted:
Blumenthal: And I believe that those outliers — and they are outliers — will be successfully prosecuted, civilly and criminally under this law.
WHAT THE FUCK?!? Goldman was talking about tons and tons of smaller companies — or anyone who operates any online service that enables user comments, where they can’t monitor everything — and under this law will have to make the choice of whether they do any monitoring at all or face the risk of that being used against them, and Blumenthal’s response is that they should be prosecuted.
Senator Blumenthal: those companies are not outliers and they’re not criminals. They’re thousands upon thousands of smaller internet companies, many based in your home state of Connecticut, that you apparently want to see shut down.
That’s messed up.