Yes, You Can Believe In Internet Freedom Without Being A Shill

from the a-little-history-lesson dept

You may have noticed lately that there's an increasing (and increasingly coordinated) effort to paint today's biggest and most successful companies as some kind of systemic social threat that needs to be reined in. As veteran tech journalist John Battelle put it, tech companies frequently are assumed these days to be Public Enemy No. 1, and those of us who defend the digital world in which we now find ourselves are presumptively marked as shills for corporate tech interests.

But a deeper historical understanding of how we got to today's internet shows that the leading NGOs and nonprofit advocacy organizations that defend today's internet-freedom framework actually predate the very existence of their presumed corporate masters.

To get taste a of the current policy debate surrounding Google and other internet companies, consider the movie I Am Jane Doe, which documents the legal battle waged by anti-sex-trafficking groups and trafficking victims against the website Backpage.com. The film, which premiered this February with a congressional screening, also tracks a two-year investigation and report by the Senate Subcommittee on Investigations into the site's symbiotic relationship with traffickers.

The documentary is powerful and powerfully effective. It has managed to accomplish what few works of art can – encourage Congress to fast-track legislative action. Last month, a powerful group of 27 bipartisan cosponsors introduced new legislation targeting Backpage.com titled the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, or SESTA. While there were rumors the bill would be attached to the upcoming "must-pass" defense authorization bill, it now appears it will move through regular order, with a hearing in the Senate Commerce Committee scheduled for Sept. 19.

Some documentarians strive to be perceived as neutral chroniclers, but I Am Jane Doe producer Mary Mazzio has lobbied aggressively on behalf of the bill. The film's official website and social media accounts have also jumped into the fight, publishing legislative guides and lobbying materials, as well as rallying a coalition to go after the bill's opponents.

Here's our problem with Mazzio's blunderbuss approach: since the bill's introduction, internet-freedom advocates (including a letter by R Street, the Copia Institute and others) as well as legal academics have raised alarm bells. In particular, the bill's overly broad provisions would gut key protections for free expression and digital commerce by amending a foundational law undergirding today's internet – Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

If you love even parts of what the internet has to offer, you likely owe thanks in some way or other to Section 230. We don't view any statute as immune from any criticism, but we do insist that any effort to chisel away at a law expressly crafted to protect and promote freedom of speech on the internet deserves a great deal of scrutiny. The problems posed by the proposed legislation are both expansive and complex, and internet freedom groups have the expertise to highlight these complexities.

Mazzio isn't one for complexity, as her film makes it a point to smear internet-freedom groups rather than address their arguments on the merits. The producers do interview experts from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), but ultimately paint those experts as shills for big tech companies. They allege advocates of online free speech and expression callously oppose commonsense efforts to curb trafficking simply because they would hurt big tech's bottom line.

This kind of rhetoric has continued throughout the advocacy campaign to pass SESTA.




But the film's promoters would be well-served to pay closer attention to the facts. Defenders of Section 230 aren't "supporting Backpage," any more than advocates of Fifth Amendment rights support criminals or oppose police. They also should look closer at the history.

While it may be easy to paint Section 230 proponents as shills for big tech because some of them sometimes receive funding from tech companies, the reality is that organizations like CDT and EFF supported these policies before today's Big Tech even existed. And other nonprofits, like the foundation that hosts the immensely valuable free resource Wikipedia, don't depend on corporate funding–they're primarily funded by individual donations–yet insist that Section 230 is what made it possible for them to exist.

While Google was founded in 1998 and Backpage.com launched in 2004, both CDT and EFF, who are mischaracterized in the film as ersatz public-interest advocates, were deeply engaged in the debate way back in 1995 over the Communications Decency Act. There's perhaps no greater evidence of how relatively un-slick and un-corporate those organizations were than their self-representations in the ASCII art newsletters of this pre-Google period supporting the bill that would later become Section 230 of the CDA:

Both organizations opposed almost all the language in the CDA and both spearheaded legal efforts that led to the CDA mostly being struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1997. But both also supported the Cox/Wyden amendment that would later become Section 230 of the act, which also created legal protections for "good Samaritan" blocking of offensive material. The Cox/Wyden amendment was added to the Telecommunications Act in the Senate in 1995, and signed into law by President Bill Clinton on Feb. 8, 1996.

It's not just that Google and Backpage weren't around when Section 230 became law. Facebook wasn't founded until 2004, YouTube wasn't founded until 2005 and Twitter wasn't founded until 2006. This isn't just a coincidence. Our vibrant online ecosystem exists because of Section 230 and the liability protections it affords to online platforms. It is the law that made today's internet possible.

The Internet Association, a tech trade association that has helped lead industry opposition to SESTA, is mostly made up of tech companies (like Google, Facebook, Twitter, Airbnb, Yelp, Snap and Pinterest) that found success after the CDA and that rely, in one form or another, on its intermediary liability protections for user generated content. And keep in mind that it's not just tech giants that oppose SESTA's language amending Section 230. It's dozens of startups and medium-sized companies, too.

Indeed, as outlined in this letter from internet-freedom advocates, there are good reasons to think SESTA's proposed changes are hastily conceived and ill-suited to address the problems they purport to solve. Sex trafficking is a horrible crime, but Section 230 already does not protect sites like Backpage if they deliberately facilitate criminal acts. The limited immunity afforded to online platforms by Section 230 does not apply to any federal criminal law, nor should it apply to state criminal law if platforms are acting in bad faith. Furthermore, a 2015 amendment to sections of the federal code governing sex trafficking should make it even easier for federal prosecutors to go after sites that host ads for trafficking, although we still need time for the courts to interpret how it is applied.

The DOJ already has the power under current law–even without SESTA–to prosecute Backpage and its founders. Indeed, lawyers for Backpage acknowledged that "indictments may issue anytime" from a federal grand jury in Arizona. If they don't, it's the proper role of Congress to hold a hearing and ask Attorney General Jeff Sessions why they aren't prosecuting this case or those like it.

If we need additional resources for the FBI or the DOJ's criminal and civil rights divisions to investigate and prosecute these cases, that's a conversation worth having. It also bears examining whether Congress should clarify the standards for platforms that contribute to the development of user content, given the different interpretations among the circuits.

But what we're seeing in the "I Am Jane Doe" advocacy campaign is that SESTA's proponents don't want to have substantive conversations about the law. Instead, they want to create their own "fake news" version of what the issues are and rush their bill to passage, no matter the consequences.

Both the intended and unintended consequences of SESTA could be catastrophic. In effect, the law threatens to undermine all of Section 230's benefits to the global internet ecosystem in order to make it easier to prosecute Backpage and its founders, who seem likely to end up in jail no matter what. While today's tech giants will likely have the resources to navigate this in some form, the barriers it sets up could mean the next wave of internet platforms never come–and the ones that we have left are further incentivized to restrict speech. Rather than open a dialogue about current cases and the state of the law and how to refine Section 230's protections, SESTA proponents want to rush in with a legislative chainsaw to carve out vast new liabilities for online platforms–the same platforms that provide us with the internet we love and upon which we all now rely.

If Congress rushes to pass SESTA without listening to the substantive arguments of the bill's critics, it will be making a catastrophic mistake.

Mike Godwin is a senior fellow with the R Street Institute who worked extensively on the CDA at EFF in the mid-1990s. Godwin later worked for the Center for Democracy and Technology as well. Zach Graves is technology policy director at the R Street Institute.


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  1. This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
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    Anonymous Coward, 18 Sep 2017 @ 10:55am

    Oh boo hoo. The tech industry's bad reputation is entirely a product of its own doing, and complaining about it just makes it worse.

    The government will quickly make you its whipping boy unless you can figure out a way to somehow get people on your side. Get crackin.

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