Dear Senators Portman & Blumenthal: What Should Blogs Do If SESTA Passes?

from the how-do-we-stay-on-the-right-side-of-the-law dept

So we've spent some time talking about why SESTA is such a bad bill even in its updated form (which fixes just a tiny sliver of the overall problems). And we may have some more soon about other problems with the language in the bill, but for now I want to make this even more real and ask Congress -- and SESTA authors Senators Rob Portman and Richard Blumenthal, specifically, what they think bloggers, independent journalists, citizen journalists and anyone who hosts comments on their site should do if SESTA passes. Because all these sites are platforms protected by Section 230 of the CEA and, as SESTA is written, parts of it are so unclear that it could introduce significant legal liability, or at least uncertainty over whether or not they're liable for the comments readers post on their sites and articles.

One thing we've heard over and over again from SESTA supporters is that the bill won't have any impact on most sites because (they claim) "no one accidentally facilitates sex trafficking." We wonder how they can be so certain. Ignoring, for the moment, that all sorts of important speech can be branded as speech related to trafficking, even for speech we all agree is problematic, it is not clear what the Congressional authors of the bill, and SESTA's staunchest advocates, think smaller sites, like ours, should do to ensure that none of that content ever sneaks through and ends up in our comment sections. To use us as an example: we're a small site, with a small team and limited resources. But we do allow comments on our posts, because we think community is an important aspect of a modern media site -- and we get a lot of comments, to the point that it is literally impossible for us to review every single comment on the site. We also, obviously, get a fair number of spam comments, and have put in place spam filters. The spam filters are pretty good, but they will make a few Type I and Type II errors at times (i.e., accidentally holding a legit comment and accidentally letting through a spam comment).

The number of comments (spam and not spam) vary day by day, but it's not uncommon to deal with on the order of 2000 comments or so (both spam and not spam) on a daily basis. We cannot read through all of them. And at least some of the spam may be advertising questionable and illegal behavior -- potentially sex trafficking. Here's an example that I found in our spam filter. The title of the spam reads "hot chinese women" but the text of the comment links to a site advertising "columbian girls" and while we've redacted part of the URL (we don't want to promote them at all), as you can see, part of the domain involves "love." Most of the text is nonsense garbage which is just designed to get through a spam filter (thankfully, in this case, it did not work):

Is this comment "facilitating sex trafficking" under federal law? I certainly hope not. But it's possible that the links in that spam go to a site that facilitates sex trafficking. And, while this comment was caught in our spam filter, what if it had gotten through? Do we now have "knowledge" that Techdirt, via its open comments, "assisted, supported, or facilitated" a violation of sex trafficking law? I would still argue that we don't, because we had no knowledge of that particular comment, and if we had seen it sneak through the spam filters, we clearly would have flagged it as spam and taken it off the site. But... the standard in the bill is not at all clear. Even worse: could this very post -- in which I'm explaining to Congress the uncertainty created by its own bill -- be used as evidence of me showing "knowledge" that sometimes spammers try to post these kinds of comments on our site? Is that enough to pass the hurdle in the bill to suggest I now have the requisite "knowledge" to potentially be both civilly and criminally liable? That would be a patently ridiculous outcome, but that, alone, represents some of the key problems of the bill as written.

Indeed, my concerns about merely asking Congress what sites like ours should do, demonstrate the automatic chilling effect in the bill. The chilling effect is happening now, before the bill is even passed.

I would hope that most rational people would say that we should not be liable just because some spammer is possibly clever enough to get a comment like this around our spam filters. But... as the bill is worded now, I am left wondering how do I avoid such liability? There are no clear safe harbors that tell me what steps to take to avoid such liability. Are we required to use a spam filter? What if none are perfect enough? Is the only way I can protect Techdirt be to kill the comment section and all the benefits a comment section enables? Can Senators Rob Portman and Richard Blumenthal tell me what to do? After all, during the hearing on this bill, when Blumenthal was told about its effect on smaller, independent sites, he insisted that such sites were "outliers" who "should be prosecuted." Is that what Blumenthal really thinks? A blog with a spam filter that is not 100% accurate should be prosecuted? If that's not what he thinks, then shouldn't the law he helped write make it clear for bloggers like me that merely allowing comments should not expose us to liability? Do small sites like Techdirt need to get pre-approval by the Internet Association who endorsed the bill to know if we'd be ok? Or, more likely, should sites like ours now need to go spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on lawyers to get an opinion that won't actually stop any potential lawsuit?

I am sure that many supporters of SESTA will argue that this is an extreme scenario. They will say, "Oh, come on, no one is going to go after you for a spam comment." I hope that's true! But, under the language of the bill, it's unclear. And that's the problem. We've certainly seen (repeatedly) that when someone wants to attack a site, they will use whatever laws they can find on the books. To make matters worse, SESTA also allows state Attorneys General to bring both civil and criminal suits. We've certainly upset some state Attorneys General in the past. Would a vindictive one use this opportunity to stifle Techdirt and shut it down? I, again, hope not, but we're living in an age where apparently it's considered okay for politicians to use their bully pulpits to threaten legal action against opponents, including the press.

There may be ways to improve SESTA -- but many of the ideas on the table also have potential serious negative consequences. We should be engaged in a careful discussion about those consequences and the costs and benefits of various approaches. There needs to be a clear explanation for how sites like ours can avoid these risks. But that's not what's happening. Small sites don't have the resources of a Facebook or a Google. They can't just spend thousands of dollars on lawyers to figure out how to navigate this new vague language, which wouldn't even guarantee that they won't get in trouble just because, say, a spam filter isn't good enough.

SESTA isn't just a bad bill because it won't do anything to stop trafficking (the trafficking will continue). It leaves smaller sites, such as ours, completely in the lurch over what our own level of risk is. So, a plea to Congress -- and Senators Portman and Blumenthal specifically: if you are going to move forward on this bill at least fix it so that sites like ours know what to do to stay on the right side of the law.

Filed Under: cda 230, comments, intermediary liability, richard blumenthal, rob portman, sesta, spam, techdirt

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  1. icon
    NeghVar (profile), 7 Nov 2017 @ 3:29pm


    If SESTA was already in effect, could this conversation trigger it and shut down techdirt?

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