Mistakes And Strategic Failures: The Killing Of The Open Internet
from the unfortunate dept
Sometime tomorrow, it’s widely expected that the House will approve a terrible Frankenstein bill that merges two separate bills we’ve spoken about, FOSTA and SESTA. The bills are bad. They will not actually do what the passionate and vocal supporters of those bills claim they will do — which is take on the problem of sex trafficking. Neither bill actually targets sex traffickers (which, you know, one would think would be a prime consideration in pushing a bill that you claim will take on sex trafficking). Instead, they seek to hold third parties (websites) responsible if people involved in sex trafficking use them. This has all sorts of problems that we’ve been discussing for months, so I won’t reiterate all of them here, but suffice it to say if these bills were really about stopping sex trafficking, they sure do a horrible job of it. If you want to try to stop these bills, check out EFF’s action page and please call your Congressional Rep., and let them know they’re about to do a really bad thing. If you want more in-depth information, CDT has you covered as well. Finally, Professor Eric Goldman details piece by piece what this Frankenstein bill does and how bolting SESTA and FOSTA together make two bad bills… even worse, and even less clear as to what it actually does.
Over the last week, I’ve spoken, either on background or off the record, to over a dozen different people on a variety of sides and in a variety of different positions concerning these bills, trying to understand how we got to the point that horrible bills that will undoubtedly do serious harm to the internet — without actually doing much of anything to stop sex trafficking — are actually likely to get passed. And the story that emerges is one of a series of blunders, misunderstandings, strategic errors and outside forces that drove things in this direction — helped along quietly by some anti-internet industries that were all too willing (if not eager) to exploit legitimate concerns about sex trafficking to get what they wanted (without actually helping sex trafficking victims).
Let’s start with the blundering. There were both large scale blunders and small scale ones. The large scale blunder is that too many folks who work at the big internet companies failed to recognize how the narrative was shifting on “the internet” over the past two years or so. Despite some efforts to warn people that the tide was shifting, many in the internet world insisted it was all overblown. And, to some extent, they are right. Recent polls show that the public still views all the big internet firms very favorably. But, sometimes a narrative can trump reality and, over the past year especially, the “narrative” is that the public doesn’t trust those companies anymore. Some of that is driven by the results of the 2016 election and the (exaggerated) claims of “fake news.”
But a narrative can be so powerful that even if it doesn’t match up with reality, it can become reality as more and more people buy into it. And, right now, many in the media and in politics have both grabbed onto the “people no longer trust big internet” narrative with a chokehold and won’t let go. And the big internet companies seemed wholly unprepared for this.
The second blunder appears to be more specific to Facebook — and it involves a complete misunderstanding of CDA 230. Last week, I pointed to a big Wired cover story about Facebook, where I called out the reporters for explaining CDA 230 exactly backwards — falsely claiming that CDA 230 meant they couldn’t take a more proactive role in moderating the site. Of course, that’s wrong. CDA 230 is explicitly why they can take a more active role.
However, since posting that article, I’ve heard from a few people at Facebook who told me that the view expressed in the article was actually the view within Facebook. That is, Facebook’s own legal and policy team pushed the idea internally that heavy moderation may run afoul of CDA 230. This is wrong. But, incredibly, Facebook’s own confusion about how the law works may now make their incorrect belief a reality, as it may have helped lead to the tech backlash, leading to things like SESTA, which would put in place a “knowledge” standard for losing CDA 230 immunity… meaning that companies will be much less proactive in monitoring.
That’s a huge, huge blunder.
Next up were the strategic errors. Back in November, the Internet Association — the trade group that represents the largest internet companies (but not the smaller ones) surprised many people by coming out in favor of a modestly update version of SESTA. As we pointed out at the time, this was selling out the internet way too early and way too cheaply. There are a few different explanations of how this happened making the rounds, but one that has come up repeatedly is that Facebook threw in the towel, believing two things (1) that it’s getting hit so hard on so many things, it couldn’t risk (falsely) being labeled as “soft on sex trafficking” and (2) it knew that it could survive whatever legal mess was created by SESTA. Some smaller internet companies believe that this second point is one that Facebook actually likes because it knows that smaller competitors will be hobbled. To say that these companies are pissed off at Facebook and the Internet Association would not accurately convey the level of anger that came across. But it wasn’t just Facebook. We heard that a few other Internet Association members — mainly those who don’t rely quite as much on CDA 230 — wanted to just “get past” the issue, and supported the Internet Association cutting whatever deal it could and moving on.
This has greatly pissed off a lot of people — including many other (smaller) Internet Association members who feel that their own trade association sold them out. And it has greatly pissed off many other groups, including other trade groups representing internet organizations and especially public interest, civil society and free speech organizations, who historically have aligned well with the Internet Association on efforts to protect an open internet. Within these groups, a feeling of trust with the Internet Association has been broken. There is plenty of support for the idea that the Internet Association, with the help of Facebook, got played and made a huge strategic mistake in settling. The Internet Association wouldn’t go on record with me, but suffice it to say the organization disputes my characterization of what happened and would really, really prefer I didn’t write this post. However, after talking to multiple other people who were deeply involved in negotiations over SESTA, there is a general feeling that the Internet Association caved and did so way too quickly when better, more workable solutions were still on the table. But, in caving, most of those discussions were tossed aside. Many people are mad that the Internet Association, with the help of Facebook, seemed to get desperate and got played right into a bad deal that harms the internet.
And note that unlike the RIAA/MPAA, which the Internet Association was basically set up to mimic as an opposing force, the Internet Association refused to take a hard line stance on this. The RIAA and MPAA don’t exactly have a history of caving on issues (even when they should). The Internet Association folded, and many people involved in protecting and building the internet are not at all happy about this. And just as the internet companies failed to recognize the power of the narrative, I’d argue that the Internet Association has failed to grasp the level of anger it has generated with its moves over the last few months as well.
Speaking of the MPAA, its fingerprints are all over SESTA, even as it’s tried to keep them mostly out of sight. For years, part of the MPAA’s “strategy” against the internet disrupting its business was to tar and feather internet companies for enabling illegal activity totally unrelated to copyright infringement (after realizing that whining about piracy wasn’t winning them any sympathy). They tried to focus on drug sales for a while. And terrorism. But it appears that sex trafficking was finally the one that caught on in Congress.
And that leads to the final point: the convenient exploitation of all of the above by “foes” of the open internet and free speech. The MPAA, officially, has been pretty quiet about SESTA, though some of its studios officially endorsed the bill. Going through lobbying records, Disney appears to be the only major studio that officially lobbied on behalf of SESTA, but multiple people suggested that former top 20th Century Fox lobbyist Rick Lane was heavily involved as well. While I don’t see his name in any official lobbying disclosure forms, a group pushing for SESTA officially thanked Lane for helping them go around Capitol Hill to stump for SESTA, calling him an “extraordinary partner.” And, not surprisingly, Lane recently posted a giddy LinkedIn post, excited about tomorrow’s vote, while totally misrepresnting both what SESTA does and the reasons many are concerned about it. Oh, and let’s not forget Oracle. The company that has seemingly decided that attacking internet companies is more important than actually innovating has been one of the most vocal supporters of SESTA, and also lobbied heavily in favor of it in Congress.
Thus, a key aspect of how the internet works — which many of this bill’s supporters don’t actually understand — is at serious risk. The internet companies probably should have realized sooner how the narrative was shifting. They probably should have better understood — and explained — how CDA 230 actually enables more monitoring and filtering, not less. But, that’s not what happened. The Internet Association could have continued to fight, rather than giving in. But none of that happened, creating an unfortunate perfect storm to do serious harm to the internet. And, again, perhaps that would all be worth it if SESTA would actually help stop sex trafficking. But it will almost certainly make the problem worse.
And, that doesn’t even get into the fact that the company almost always cited as an example of why we need SESTA, Backpage.com, is almost certainly about to face a ruling in a case saying that Backpage is not protected by CDA 230. The fact that Congress is unwilling to even wait and see how that case turns out (or what a grand jury that is supposedly investigating Backpage decides) suggests that this bill has never actually been about stopping sites like Backpage, but about punching a huge hole in CDA 230 and creating havoc for tons of internet platforms — especially smaller ones.
This situation is a pretty big mess, and it wasn’t helped by misjudgments and strategic errors by various internet companies and the Internet Association. But the effort to undermine aspects of the internet also has some “help” from those who are gleeful about how this is all working out. And it’s not because they think this will do a damn thing to stop sex trafficking. And it’s really too bad, as the end result of this bill may make it that much harder to actually deal with sex trafficking online.