Congressperson's Sex Trafficking Bill Looks To Carve Holes In Section 230 Immunity

from the first-they-came-for-the-worst-of-the-worst... dept

Law prof Eric Goldman -- who's covered numerous internet-related cases over the years -- is sounding the alarm about a draft bill [PDF] circulating Congress which could do some very serious damage to the internet itself. The bill aims to undercut Section 230 protections in the name of preventing sex trafficking.

The draft bill is called the “No Immunity for Sex Traffickers Online Act of 2017.” It’s authored by Rep. Ann Wagner (R-Mo.). The bill would amend Section 230 in two main ways:

1) it would add a new statement to Section 230’s purpose: “to ensure vigorous enforcement against providers and users of interactive computer services of Federal and State criminal and civil law relating to sexual exploitation of children or sex trafficking of children, including through the availability of a civil remedy for victims of sex trafficking of children”

2) it would exclude the following claims from Section 230’s immunity:

– “any State criminal statute relating to sexual exploitation of children or sex trafficking of children” from the immunity

18 USC 1595, which has a civil remedy for sex trafficking

– “any other Federal or State law (to the extent such law does not impose criminal penalties) relating to sexual exploitation of children or sex trafficking of children”

As Goldman points out, Wagner's bill is clearly aimed at Backpage. If it ever makes its way into law, it will arrive far too late to wield it against Backpage and its owners, but it could be used to initiate prosecutions against other site owners for content posted by their users.

Maybe Rep. Wagner was just waiting for a like-minded legislator to come along and help push some bad ideas towards the president's desk. The recent arrival of former California attorney general Kamala Harris (a newly-elected Senator) should ensure lousy, internet-damaging bills aren't limited to the House. It's a chance to make earlier complaints become debilitating statutes. Goldman notes the bill not only duplicates Rep. Wagner's previous human trafficking law (which was passed), but echoes a "Let's Blame Backpage!" letter sent to Congress back in 2013.

[I]n 2013, 47 state AGs (including California’s then-AG and now-Senator Kamala Harris) sent a letter to Congress complaining that Section 230 prevented them from squashing Backpage and requesting that Congress amend Section 230 to exclude all “federal *and state* crimes.” Congress never responded to the letter–until now. Consistent with the AGs’ request, Rep. Wagner’s bill would open up Section 230 to state crimes, but only if the crimes relate “to sexual exploitation of children or sex trafficking of children”–a smaller universe than the AGs’ request to open up *all* state crimes.

The same idea -- a "narrow" exception to Section 230 immunity -- has been floated as a way to tackle the revenge porn problem. It's almost always easier to locate and serve/prosecute site owners than it is to go after those actually violating laws. The problem for most prosecutors (and plaintiffs) is they're prevented from doing so by Section 230 immunity. This is the way it should be. The target of prosecution/litigation should be the person causing the harm or breaking the law, not the person(s) easier to locate and punish.

What proposals like this do -- if they become law -- is create small fractures in Section 230 protections. These will eventually become actual holes as prosecutors, politicians, and courts carve out more and more exceptions as the activity they're trying to prevent moves to other platforms either to escape scrutiny or because site owners and service providers are unwilling to host anything that might see them being held responsible for users' content.

The strict liability rule might run into First Amendment concerns, but we won’t know that until the court challenge. As we know, if there’s not a single home for them, online prostitution ads migrate into other topics. So any classified ad or message board service–even those that are completely free–would need to prescreen most/all user postings to screen out the possibly-small percentage of those postings that violate the new law. The overall cost imposition on publishers, and associated chilling effect, attributable to the law would be huge.

The most serious problem Goldman sees -- and his reason for even bothering to discuss a draft bill -- is this is the sort of thing that could actually pass in the current political climate. The California AG who engaged in a personal vendetta against Backpage is now a US senator. The author of this bill is a Republican sitting in a Republican-controlled house. The bill targets child sex trafficking, which is of course the worst kind of sex trafficking. And who's going to stand up in the House or Senate and claim they're against preventing the trafficking of children for sex? Clearly no one wants to take that public stance, even if they know the bill would do harm to the First Amendment while having almost no effect on eliminating sex trafficking.

Then there's the internet service providers themselves. As Goldman notes, they weren't exactly rallying around Backpage as politicians and prosecutors used it for a punching bag and a useful analogue for everything that's wrong with the internet.

[I]t’s unclear that the major Internet companies will oppose the bill. They’ve frequently stayed on the sidelines during Backpage’s battles, content to let Backpage carry the water for everyone. With Backpage out of the industry, they no longer get the free ride. This draft bill will force a decision: acquiesce or fight. I don’t know what they will choose.

Small exceptions become huge problems. Mission creep, combined with most politicians' innate ability to make bad things even worse, means this proposed exception to Section 230 protections won't stay narrow and limited for long. Fortunately, the bill's a long way off from a president's signature. But the opposition to legislative ideas like this needs to remain loud and constant.

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Filed Under: ann wagner, intermediary liability, kamala harris, moral panic, section 230, sex trafficking
Companies: backpage

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  1. icon
    Bergman (profile), 29 Mar 2017 @ 6:41pm


    If the mere presence of child porn on a server is a strict liability offense for the owner of the server -- even if the owner is unaware that a third party put it there -- then you could use the law as a weapon against anyone you dislike.

    Just email them an encrypted illegal image and don't provide the key to them. Then give the feds an anonymous tip. The feds will easily crack the encryption an end user cannot, and discover the incriminating contraband.

    Strict liability then kicks in.

    A group like Anonymous could even (in theory) get all of Congress imprisoned by defacing Congressional websites in specific ways, given how strict liability laws work.

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