Is Hollywood 'Exploiting' Anti-Trafficking Organization To Support SESTA?

from the not-a-good-look-guys dept

We've been a bit perplexed about how much momentum SESTA has. As explained, it's a bill that is called the "Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act" but it has many serious problems that could impact just about any online service, even if they have no idea that they're being used to support sex trafficking. Also, there's some aspect of moral panic to all of this, as the actual statistics suggest that the size of the sex trafficking problem is not nearly as big as many politicians and organizations claim. That's not to say it's not a problem -- because clearly it is a problem, and an important one. But it does suggest that broad-brush solutions with massive consequences to the entire internet should be reviewed a bit more carefully.

Indeed, as we've suggested, the way SESTA is currently structured, there appears to be a high likelihood that it would make the sex trafficking problem worse, by making it prohibitively risky for internet platforms to seek out and report to the authorities evidence of trafficking on their platforms. This is why a whole bunch of experts and organizations focused on stopping sex trafficking have all spoken out against SESTA, saying it's the wrong solution. Freedom Network USA, which works to reduce trafficking around the US made this point clearly:

It is important to note that responsible website administration can make trafficking more visible—which can lead to increased identification. There are many cases of victims being identified online—and little doubt that without this platform, they would have not been identified. Internet sites provide a digital footprint that law enforcement can use to investigate trafficking into the sex trade, and to locate trafficking victims. When websites are shut down, the sex trade is pushed underground and sex trafficking victims are forced into even more dangerous circumstances.

Similarly, the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP) has spoke out against SESTA, calling it a "disguised internet censorship" bill.

The Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act or SESTA, S. 1963, however cleverly titled, is not at all what it claims to be. It boasts of being the answer to uncovering and punishing those engaged in sex trafficking online but what it actually is about is internet censorship. It is an attempt to remove the protection websites are currently offered under Section 230 of The Communications Decency Act. Section 230 is in place to uphold freedom of expression on the internet and protects websites from being liable for what a third party might post outside of their knowledge. If this bill passes, any person or business online could be subject to civil or state penalties if the authorities “believe” there is any trafficking or condoning of trafficking on your site. How is that determined? What activities will they consider illegal online? What about consenting adults engaging in sexual online courtship? What about our favorite fetish and cruising sites? What about individuals who enjoy posting nude or nude implied photos of themselves online? Would we then have to be worried about our naked photos being considered illegal solicitation?

But what about the groups supporting the bill? Well, we already looked at one group, that saw SESTA as a stepping stone to banning all porn. But I also wanted to look a little more closely at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children -- NCMEC. NCMEC has a very good reputation, and the organization has done a lot of really amazing work. While it's a private non-profit, it was created by Congress and gets a ton of government funding. NCMEC has, at times, succumbed to moral panics and exaggerated threats around "stranger danger" and such -- but for the most part, it's a pretty respectable organization.

I was a bit surprised, then, to see its General Counsel, Yiota Souras, as one of the people testifying before Congress about SESTA recently, insisting that the bill is narrowly tailored (it's not) and that it was unlikely to negatively impact most companies online (it would).

But, then another story caught my eye. Recently, the powerhouse DC lobbying firm, American Continental Group, announced that it had signed up a bunch of new clients, including News Corporation, the owner of 20th Century Fox.

American Continental Group has signed another five clients: Cognizant Technology Solutions, Diebold Nixdorf, News Corporation, the Onex Corporation and Textron. The firm has signed more than 30 new clients this year, helped by the reputation of David Urban, a lobbyist there who’s seen as close to Trump’s administration after serving as a senior adviser on Trump’s campaign and helping him win Pennsylvania. (Urban’s name was mentioned as a potential replacement for Reince Priebus as White House chief of staff earlier this year.)

Manus Cooney, Chris Israel and Urban will lobby for News Corporation on intellectual property issues, according to the filing.

The name Manus Cooney stood out to me, because it turns out... he's Chairman of the Board of NCMEC:

And, first of all, good for him. It's good to see that he's on the board of non-profits and helping make the world a better place. But, it at least makes me wonder if there isn't something of a conflict here -- and perhaps one that explains NCMEC's over-enthusiastic support of such a bad bill. Yes, Cooney just took on News Corp as a client, but the firm also basically lists every other big Hollywood/legacy copyright player as a client. Viacom, Time Warner, the Authors Guild, Comcast (owners of NBC Universal), the Copyright Alliance, the Music First Coalition (an RIAA front group), Random House, Reed Elsevier, SoundExchange (an RIAA spinoff), Songwriters Guild of America, and others.

And it's no secret that many of those organizations are supporters of SESTA, some more vocally than others. News Corp's 21st Century Fox has directly come out in support, for example.

Hollywood really wants SESTA to pass for a variety of reasons, nearly all of them focused on its weird visceral hatred of one company: Google. You'll recall, of course, how the Sony Pictures hack a few years back revealed the existence of Project Goliath -- in which the various Hollywood studios colluded to try to support doing anything to harm Google. The key part of the Project Goliath strategy was to convinced state Attorneys' General to target Google for basically anything bad found on the internet. Its first "success" story was getting Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood to subpoena Google and claim it was responsible for all the bad stuff people found on Google -- including counterfeit pharmaceuticals, sex trafficking and, of course, copyright infringement.

It was, of course, later revealed that the letter that Hood sent to Google had actually been authored by the MPAA's outside lawyers. Google pushed back against all of this, and a judge told Hood that nearly all of his attack was barred by CDA 230 (it also noted that the subpoena appeared to have been done in "bad faith.")

Now, let's pull all of this together: a big part of Hollywood's plan to handicap Google was to allow state Attorneys General to attack Google for bad stuff that people could find via Google. That flopped, in large part because of CDA 230, which protects sites from the actions of third parties. Now, along comes SESTA, whose entire point is to punch a giant hole in CDA 230, such that if a site is used to "facilitate" trafficking, the site suddenly loses its immunity. Another key point in SESTA: saying that claims brought by states Attorneys General are no longer immune from action under CDA 230. Hmmmmmm...

And, then, suddenly we have NCMEC step up to make clearly misleading to downright false statements in support of SESTA at the very same time that NCMEC's chairman of the board is pushing to get a lobbying deal with News Corp. -- one of the leaders of the anti-Google effort, and it raises at least some questions about whether NCMEC's support of SESTA is really about saving children... or helping Hollywood attack the internet.


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