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Posted on Techdirt - 17 April 2018 @ 10:38am

If Trump Is So Worried About Protecting Attorney-Client Privilege, He Should End The NSA's Bulk Surveillance (And CPB Device Seizures)

from the Privilege-for-me-not-for-thee dept

Over the weekend Trump tweeted:

If you can't read that it says:

Attorney Client privilege is now a thing of the past. I have many (too many!) lawyers and they are probably wondering when their offices, and even homes, are going to be raided with everything, including their phones and computers, taken. All lawyers are deflated and concerned!

Attorney-client privilege is indeed a serious thing. It is inherently woven into the Sixth Amendment's right to counsel. That right to counsel is a right to effective counsel. Effective counsel depends on candor by the client. That candor in turn depends on clients being confident that their communications seeking counsel will be confidential. If, however, a client has to fear the government obtaining those communications then their ability to speak openly with their lawyer will be chilled. But without that openness, their lawyers will not be able to effectively advocate for them. Thus the Sixth Amendment requires that attorney-client communications – those communications made in the furtherance of seeking legal counsel – be privileged from government (or other third party) view.

The problem is, it doesn't take a raid of a home or office to undermine the privilege. Bulk surveillance invades the sphere of privacy these lawyer-client communications depend on, and, worse, it does so indiscriminately. Whether it involves shunting a copy of all of AT&T's internet traffic to the NSA, or warrantlessly obtaining everyone's Verizon Wireless phone call records, while, sure, it catches records of plenty of communications made to non-lawyers (which itself is plenty troubling), it also inherently catches revealing information about communications made to and from lawyers and their clients. Meanwhile the seizures and searches of communications devices such as cell phones and laptops raises similar Constitutional problems. Doing so gives the government access to all records of all communications stored on these devices, including those privileged ones that should have been expressly kept from it.

So Trump is right: attorney-client privilege in America is under attack, and ever since we started learning about these programs lawyers have definitely been worried about how they impose an intolerable burden on the Sixth Amendment right to counsel. But unlike in Trump's situation where there is serious reason to doubt whether there's any privilege to be maintained at all (after all, privilege only applies to communications made in the course of seeking legal counsel, not communications made for other purposes, including the furtherance of crime or fraud), and care being taken to preserve what privilege there may be, bulk surveillance sweeps up all communications, including all those for which there is no doubt as to their privileged status, and without any sort of care taken to protect these sensitive communications from the prying eyes of the state. Indeed, the whole point of bulk surveillance is so that the prying eyes of the state can get to see who was saying what to whom without any prior reason to target any of these communications in particular, because with bulk surveillance there is no targeting: it swoops up everything, privileged or not.

If Trump truly finds it troubling for the government to be able obtain privileged communications he could put an end to these programs. It would certainly help make any argument he raises about how his own privilege claims should be sacrosanct rings ring less hollow if his administration weren't currently being so destructive to everyone else's.

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Posted on Techdirt - 13 April 2018 @ 7:39pm

We Interrupt Today's News With An Update From The Monkey Selfie Case

from the it-ain't-over-till-it's-over dept

In today's fast-paced news cycle it's easy to overlook the important things: the copyright status of the monkey selfie.

Today we have learned nothing new about it, except that the case is not over yet. Which is itself significant, because the parties in the case had jointly moved to dismiss the appeal, and today that motion was denied. In its order denying the motion [pdf, embedded below] the Ninth Circuit acknowledged that while it had the power to dismiss an appeal if the parties so requested it, it did not have the obligation to do so if there were countervailing interests. And in this case, the Ninth Circuit found, there were countervailing interests requiring it to fully adjudicate the matter.

It cited several other cases as analogs. As in Albers v. Eli Lily, "this case has been fully briefed and argued by both sides, and the court has expended considerable resources to come to a resolution. Denying the motion to dismiss ensures that 'the investment of public resources already devoted to this litigation will have some return.'" Furthermore, as was the case in Ford v. Strickland, "a decision in this developing area of the law would help guide the lower courts."

Also, referencing Albers and Khouzam v. Ashcroft, the court noted that denying the dismissal of appeals prevents the parties from "manipulating precedent in a way that suits their institutional preferences."

As one of our colleagues once warned in a similar context, “courts must be particularly wary of abetting ‘strategic behavior’ on the part of institutional litigants whose continuing interest in the development in the law may transcend their immediate interest in the outcome of a particular case.” Suntharalinkam v. Keisler, 506 F.3d 822, 828 (9th Cir. 2007) (en banc) (Kozinski, J., dissenting from the denial of rehearing).

In other words, enough of this procedural monkey business. The appeal remains a live matter, and at some point the court will presumably substantively rule on it.

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Posted on Techdirt - 4 April 2018 @ 10:43am

Yet Another Case Highlights Yet Another Constitutional Infirmity With The DMCA

from the saying-yes-to-censorship-and-no-to-states'-rights dept

Once again, the Constitutional exceptionalism of the DMCA has reared its ugly head. Thanks to the way it has been interpreted we have already enabled it to become an unchecked system of prior restraint, which is anathema to the First Amendment. And now yet another court has allowed this federal law to supersede states' ability to right the wrongs that misuse of the DMCA's censorship tools inevitably causes, even though doing so arguably gives this federal law more power than the Constitution allows.

The two problems are of course related. Prior restraint is what happens when speech is censored without ever having being adjudicated to be wrongful. That's what a takedown demand system does: force the removal of speech first, and sort out whether that was the right result later. But because the Ninth Circuit has taken the teeth out of the part of the DMCA that is supposed to punish bogus takedowns, that second part very rarely happens. Section 512(f) was supposed to provide a remedy for those who have been harmed by their content being removed. But in the wake of key rulings, most recently Lenz v. Universal, that remedy is rarely available, leaving online speakers everywhere vulnerable to the censoring whims of anyone inclined to send a takedown demand targeting their speech, no matter how unjustifiably, since there is little ability to ever hold this wrongdoer liable for the harm their censorship causes.

And censorship does cause harm. Sometimes the harm that it causes can even be to one's business or livelihood, which can suffer from the interruption of the removed content's availability. Of course, normally when people have had their business or livelihoods messed with, they can sue whomever messed with them. We have lots of laws that address wrongful meddling, including torts like intentional interference with contract or prospective economic advantage, because normally we don't like people having free reign to mess with other people's business.

But most of those tort claims are creatures of state law, and the DMCA is federal law. And the question that was raised by a recent case, Stevens v. Vodka & Milk, LLC, is how state law and federal law interrelate. Per the court: they don't. According to the Southern District of New York court, federal law completely pre-empts state law, leaving the only recourse available for someone who has been hurt by wrongful DMCA takedown notices Section 512(f), the remedy that the DMCA ostensibly enables. Even though that remedy is utterly useless.

Sadly, this court was not the first to reach this conclusion. But that fact does not make the conclusion any less terrible, or any less questionable. It's predicated on the notion of "field pre-emption," "where Congress occupies an entire field." In this case, Congress is the exclusive authority establishing copyright, and so federal law pre-empts state laws on copyright. This pre-emption makes sense, because state law addressing copyright would likely interfere with the federal policy. Yet that's not what these state laws are doing. They aren't trying to establish copyrights or address their scope; they are attempting to speak to what happens in situations where a harm has resulted and no copyright was involved at all.

The court essentially ignores this distinction, asserting that because the DMCA addresses what happens when takedown notices are sent without there being a valid copyright claim, it is the final word on remediating the harm the wrongful takedown notices caused. But this reasoning doesn't make sense.

First, the Constitution narrowly prescribes what federal law can do. It can, for instance, create copyrights (pursuant to the Progress Clause), but it doesn't follow that federal law can necessarily operate, much less exclusively operate, where there is no copyright present. Without that copyright there may be no constitutional basis for that federal law to operate at all. But if the court were right, that once the DMCA is merely cited as a basis for a censorship demand, even if invalidly, it is the only law that can address the resulting harm, then that's what the federal law would be doing: operating in a domain where it may no longer have any constitutional entitlement to act. Particularly given that people aren't even supposed to be able to engage the DMCA without that federally-created copyright in the first place, it really doesn't make sense that the DMCA can remain engaged, trumping state law, when it wasn't supposed to be engaged in the first place.

Granted, it might make sense for the DMCA to pre-empt state law when the takedown notice sender has a valid copyright but nonetheless has sent wrongful takedown notices where the targeted use was fair. If state law could punish those takedown notices, it might interfere with the parameters of that federally-created copyright and encroach the "field" of copyright law left exclusively to federal law. But in the absence of a valid copyright, federal law should not be able to extinguish a state-based claim that has nothing to do with the contours of a right that isn't even present.

And the reason federal law should be so limited is because of the abuse we see, where anyone can get away with tortious behavior simply by fraudulently claiming a fictional federal right. A takedown notice sent by someone without a valid copyright is not any more about the "field" of copyright than it is about Santa Claus. Rather, it's about tortiously wrongful behavior. And vindicating injuries caused by such behavior is not something that federal law generally gets to do. That is a power generally left to the states, and the Constitution should not permit a bad actor to escape state law designed to punish this sort of behavior simply because he's fraudulently packaged up his bad acts with a meaningless copyright label federal law does not allow him to use.

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Posted on Free Speech - 23 March 2018 @ 1:23pm

Tenth Circuit Issues A Troubling Ruling Limiting New Mexico's Anti-SLAPP Statute In Federal Court

from the It's-Erie-how-problematic-this-decision-is dept

Last week the Tenth Circuit refused to let New Mexico's anti-SLAPP statute be used in federal court in diversity cases. The relatively good news about the decision is that it is premised heavily on the specific language of New Mexico's statute and may not be easily extensible to other states' anti-SLAPP laws. This focus on the specific language is also why, as the decision acknowledges, it is inconsistent with holdings in other circuits, such as the Ninth. But the bad news is that the decision still takes the teeth out of New Mexico's statute and will invite those who would abuse judicial process in order to chill speech to bring actions that can get into the New Mexico federal courts.

In this case, there had been litigation pending in New Mexico state court. That litigation was then removed to federal court on the basis of "diversity jurisdiction." Diversity jurisdiction arises when the parties in the litigation are from separate states and the amount in controversy is more than $75,000 and the issue in dispute is solely a question of state law. Federal courts ordinarily can't hear cases that only involve state law, but because of the concern that it could be unfair for an out-of-state litigant to have to be heard in a foreign state court, diversity jurisdiction can allow a case that would have been heard in state court to be heard by the federal one for the area instead.

At the same time, we don't want it to be unfair for the other party to now have to litigate in federal court if being there means it would lose some of the protection of local state law. We also don't want litigants to be too eager to get into federal court if being there could confer an advantage they would not have had if the case were instead being heard in state court. These two policy goals underpin what is commonly known as the "Erie doctrine," named after a 1938 US Supreme Court case that is still followed today.

The Erie doctrine is why a case removed to federal court will still use state law to decide the matter. But sometimes it's hard to figure out how much state law needs to be used. Federal courts have their own procedural rules, for instance, and so they are not likely to use procedural state rules to govern their proceedings. They only will use substantive state law. But it turns out that figuring out which a law is, procedural or substantive, is anything but straightforward, and that is the question at the heart of this Tenth Circuit case: was New Mexico's anti-SLAPP law procedural, in which case the federal court did not have to follow it, or substantive, in which case it did? And unfortunately in this case, Los Lobos Renewable Power LLP v. Americulture, Inc., the Tenth Circuit decided it was "hardly a challenging endeavor" to decide that it was only procedural.

It based a significant portion of its decision on language unique to the New Mexico statute that differed from other states' and emphasized its procedural operation:

Unlike many other states’ anti-SLAPP statutes that shift substantive burdens of proof or alter substantive standards, or both, under no circumstance will the New Mexico anti-SLAPP statute have any bearing on the suit’s merits determination. See, e.g., Makaeff v. Trump Univ., LLC, 715 F.3d 254 (9th Cir. 2013) (addressing a California anti-SLAPP statute that shifted substantive burdens and altered substantive standards).

It also looked to a New Mexico state supreme court decision that had used substantive/procedural language as part of its consideration of a different anti-SLAPP case:

The New Mexico Supreme Court’s recent decision in Cordova v. Cline, 396 P.3d 159 (N.M. 2017), supports our reading of the anti-SLAPP statute to a tee. ... The court could not have made itself any clearer: “While the Anti-SLAPP statute provides the procedural protections [the members] require, the Noerr-Pennington doctrine is the mechanism that offers [the members] the substantive First Amendment protections they seek.”

But picking out this language of the Cordova case to base its holding on suggests that the Tenth Circuit seriously misread what the New Mexico Supreme Court case was saying and all the effort it had made in its ruling to ensure that the state anti-SLAPP law would, in fact, have substantive effect in that case:

To curtail SLAPP suits, New Mexico enacted an Anti-SLAPP statute. Section 38-2-9.1. The Legislature enacted the Anti-SLAPP statute with the policy goal of protecting its citizens from lawsuits in retaliation for exercising their right to petition and to participate in quasi-judicial proceedings. Section 38-2-9.2. In order to accomplish this goal, the Legislature created expedited procedures for dismissing actions "seeking money damages against a person for conduct or speech undertaken or made in connection with a public hearing or public meeting in a quasi-judicial proceeding before a tribunal or decision-making body of any political subdivision of the state," Section 38-2-9.1(A), and allowing for the recovery of costs and attorney fees incurred in pursuing the dismissal, Section 38-2-9.1(B). … We conclude that the Legislature intended to protect all public participation, whether it be in quasi-judicial proceedings or public hearings. The specific protection in the Anti-SLAPP statute for participation in public hearings before tribunals also comports with a national political ethos, that "encourage[s], promote[s], and purport[s] to protect citizens' testifying, debating, complaining, campaigning, lobbying, litigating, appealing, demonstrating, and otherwise `invoking the law' on public issues." George W. Pring & Penelope Canan, "Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation" ("SLAPPS"): An Introduction for Bench, Bar and Bystanders, 12 Bridgeport L. Rev. 937, 945-46 (1992); see also Rowe & Romero, supra, at 221-23 (summarizing a lawsuit filed in state district court against protestors who appealed city approval of Wal-Mart's development plan to the district court and then the Court of Appeals and describing the lawsuit as a SLAPP because it was intended to discourage the protestors' public participation in opposing the development).

It's this language from the New Mexico Supreme Court opinion upholding the anti-SLAPP statute that should have informed the Tenth Circuit's analysis, not the substantive/procedural language that it used in an entirely different context than in the case before the Tenth Circuit. The bottom line is that with an operative anti-SLAPP law public participation in New Mexico is protected from costly litigation. Without it public participation in New Mexico has no such protection. But the Tenth Circuit's ruling means that New Mexico speakers only get the benefit of that protection if the people who try to sue them are local to New Mexico. If they instead have the misfortune of being sued by an out-of-state plaintiff able to assert diversity jurisdiction to get the case into federal court, they will suddenly be stripped of it.

The degree to which this deprivation obviously frustrates New Mexico legislative intent to protect speech, and leaves speech vulnerable to chilling abuse of process, shows just how substantive anti-SLAPP law really is, and thus just how out-of-step with the Erie doctrine the Tenth Circuit deeming it merely procedural really is. It's also inconsistent with another part of the decision where the Tenth Circuit itself seemed to recognize the anti-SLAPP law's substantive import.

As part of the same decision, the court also had to rule on whether it could even consider this interlocutory appeal of the district court's denial to enforce the New Mexico anti-SLAPP statute. Due to a missed deadline by the defendant, the court had to engage in a meaningful analysis that included assessing just how pivotal it was for the court to rule on the anti-SLAPP applicability question now, and not after the full case examining the merits of the lawsuit had concluded. And the court found that it was indeed very important:

"[W]ere we to wait for this case to conclude in the court below by ordinary process, the statute’s sole aim would already be lost. Defendants would have already incurred the ordinary time and expense of litigation that the statute potentially grants them a right to avoid. Indeed, we can reverse the rulings of a hi court, but we cannot order away proceedings and legal fees that have already passed into history. Nor can we remand the case with instructions to “do it again, but faster this time.”

This very same finding regarding the law's effect, a finding that underpinned the Tenth Circuit's ability to even consider the appeal at all, should also have led it to conclude that the anti-SLAPP law was in fact substantive, and thus applicable in federal court. Instead, however, when it came to considering the question of its applicability the court suddenly forgot about this significance. It based its decision on semantics, rather than substance, and in contravention of what the Erie doctrine at its root requires.

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Posted on Techdirt - 22 March 2018 @ 10:44am

Wherein Facebook Loses Recess For Everyone

from the with-Facebook-friends-like-these dept

Hold on tight to those memories of all the good things the Internet has brought. SESTA has just passed the Senate, and at this point it's a clear legislative path to undermining Section 230, the law that has enabled all those good things the Internet has offered.

It is not entirely Facebook's fault: opportunists from Hollywood saw it as a chance to weaken the innovation that weakens their antiquated grip over people's creativity. Ill-informed celebrities, who understood absolutely nothing about the cause they professed to advocate for, pressed their bumper-sticker demands that something be done, even though that something is destructive to the very cause the bumper-stickers were for. Willfully ignorant members of Congress then bought into the bumper-sticker rhetoric, despite all the evidence they had about how destructive this law would be to those interests and online speech generally.

Even frequent innovation ally Senator Wyden joined the chorus mounting against the tech industry, lending credence to the idea that when it came to a law that would undermine the Internet, the Internet had it coming.

With all due respect, that criticism is not fair. Setting aside that many of these companies didn't even exist twenty years ago, we have never before lived in a world where we could all talk to each other. It makes no sense to punish the people who have enabled this gift simply because we haven't quite figured out how best to manage it. We are but toddlers in Internet time, and just as we would not crush a toddler's ability to learn to do better, it makes no sense to punish today's Internet service providers, or future innovators, or speakers, simply because figuring out how to handle the promise of this global interconnectivity is hard. We cannot let the reactionary antipathy against Facebook mask difficult issues that need to be carefully teased apart before applying regulatory "solutions."

But when we tally the score on whose fault today is, plenty can still be laid at Facebook's door. Again, not all of its current troubles are necessarily of its own making: in addition to being square in the eye of the worst growing pains that computer-mediated communication can offer, it has also been misused, and even potentially illegally manipulated, by bad actors keen to exploit the inherent vulnerabilities presented by this shift from a world of physical scarcity to a world of digital plenty. Meanwhile doctoral theses in organizational theory could be written about the challenges faced by large companies, especially those that have grown so quickly, in reacting to the challenges their success has invited. In other words, we need to separate which expectations of the company are reasonable from those that are not necessarily fair to expect from an enterprise pioneering a new business that could not have even existed just a few years ago.

Yet while much of what Facebook does should be viewed charitably, it is not beyond criticism. To say it is like a bull in a china shop would be unfair to bulls, who at least seem to have some awareness of the chaos they leave in their wake as they throw their weight around. Whereas Facebook seems to have little insight into just what it is that it does, where it lives in the Internet ecosystem, and who is in there with it. As it blunders about, stoking outrage that makes people too upset to see the need for nuance in regulatory response, it also interferes with those advocating for that nuanced regulatory response. It is becoming very hard to trust Facebook as a partner in addressing the complex issues its business choices raise when the company itself seems to lack any coherent understanding of what those choices are. After all, what exactly is the business of Facebook? Is it to aggregate data, or to connect people and intermediate their speech? Or something else? These competing agendas antagonize users and cloud the regulatory waters, leading to overreactions like SESTA that end up hurting everyone. The bitter irony of SESTA, of course, is that it only punishes the good things Facebook does—the being a global platform facilitating speech and interpersonal connections around the world—that benefit our lives, and not those that give us pause. But it also makes sure that no one else will be able to come along and perform any of these functions any better.

Furthermore, it should not be forgotten that, as a matter of politics, Facebook allowed this regulatory travesty to happen. Its shocking endorsement of these dysfunctional policies undermined the resistance that the speakers and innovators were trying to mount against these policies that so that threaten them. Facebook may be foolish enough to believe it can endure the regulatory shift SESTA will bring, but even if it were correct, no one else can. Not even Facebook's own users.

Today is a sad day for the future and all the speech, innovation, and interconnectivity we were counting on to help us confront the challenges of living together in this increasingly small world. There is plenty of blame to go around, but the oblivious insularity of one of the biggest actors in the policy space is a deserving recipient of much of it. Not only was it a lightning rod for regulatory outrage, not entirely undeservedly, but it then greased the skids for the worst of it, indifferent to the effects on others. It will surely suffer from its choices, but so will everyone else.

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Posted on Techdirt - 16 March 2018 @ 10:45am

Internet Wins, And The Need To Appreciate What We've Got Before It's Gone

from the golden-goose-preservation dept

It's become quite fashionable these days to gripe about the Internet. Even some of its staunchest allies in Congress have been getting cranky. Naturally there are going to be growing pains as humanity adapts to the unprecedented ability for billions of people to communicate with each other easily, cheaply, and immediately for the first time in world history. But this communications revolution has also brought some extraordinary benefits that we glibly risk when we forget about them and instead only focus the challenges. This glass is way more than half full but, if we're not careful to protect it, soon it will be empty.

As we've been talking about a lot recently, working its way through Congress is a bill, SESTA/FOSTA, so fixated on perceived problems with the Internet (even though there's no evidence that these are problems the Internet itself caused) that it threatens the ability of the Internet to deliver its benefits, including those that would better provide tools to deal with some of those perceived problems, if not outright make those same problems worse by taking away the Internet's ability to help. But it won't be the last such bill, as long as the regulatory pile-on intending to disable the Internet is allowed to proceed unchecked.

As the saying too often goes, you don't know what you've got till it's gone. But this time let's not wait to lose it; let's take the opportunity to appreciate all the good the Internet has given us, so we can hold on tight to it and resist efforts to take it away.

Towards that end, we want to encourage the sharing and collection of examples of how the Internet has made the world better: how it made it better for everyone, and how it even just made it better for you, and whether it made things better for good, or for even just one moment in one day when the Internet enabled some connection, discovery, or opportunity that could not have happened without it. It is unlikely that this list could be exhaustive: the Internet delivers its benefits too frequently and often too seamlessly to easily recognize them all. But that's why it's all the more important to go through the exercise of reflecting on as many as we can, because once they become less frequent and less seamless they will be much easier to miss and much harder to get back.

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Posted on Techdirt - 27 February 2018 @ 12:01pm

Anti-NRA Censorship Efforts Echo Earlier Pro-NRA Censorship Efforts, And Learn No Lessons From Them

from the no-laugh-in-matter dept

Lately I've been enjoying watching re-runs of Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In. It's somewhat reassuring to watch a previous generation get through a period of political angst as we go through this current one, especially as there are quite a few parallels that can be drawn.

I mention this because as people call for Amazon, Apple, Roku, and YouTube to drop NRA-TV, I realize that we've seen calls for censorship like this before. What's happening today:

Amazon, Apple, Roku and YouTube are facing increased calls to drop the National Rifle Association’s TV channel from their streaming services, as backlash against the organization grows following a Florida school shooting last week that killed 17 people.

On Thursday, Brad Chase ― a friend of Daniel Reed, the father of a Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student who survived the shooting ― started a petition urging Amazon to drop the channel.

“The NRA has long ignored its role in promoting gun violence and betrayed the names of good and responsible gun owners,” Chase wrote on the petition’s page. “It’s time to hold them, and their partners, accountable ... a company like Amazon should not be spreading their message.”

But compare these calls for television networks to drop pro-NRA views with the calls NRA supporters used to make to television networks to pressure them to drop anti-NRA views instead.

In the case of Laugh-In, a precursor to shows like Saturday Night Live and often lauded for its humorous handling of topics of public interest, it appears that gun control was one topic that was off-limits to it. From a letter Dan Rowan wrote in October 1973, lamenting his show's inability to do a send-up of America's gun control laws because the TV network was too afraid of the NRA to allow Laugh-in take it on:

...[T]here are so many things we can't talk about because [the network is] running so damn scared. We have been trying to get a gun control piece on since the beginning of the season, and they are so afraid of the NRA lobby we haven't been able to. Now I don't know one solid argument against the control of hand guns and we will keep trying but that's just one example of the problem.

(From the book, "A Friendship: The Letters of Dan Rowan and John D. McDonald, 1967-1974.")

Granted, this comment came up in the context of Rowan's broader frustration with a much more general culture of fear at the network, which appears to have been predicated on licensing concerns due to the saber-rattling of eventually-deposed Vice President Spiro Agnew. But the essential point remains that pressure by people with one set of views was preventing the airing of any contrary views. And so the future inherited ignorance on the subject, because that's what censorship gives it.

Television is not what it was in the 1970s, when the major networks served as gatekeepers. Now Amazon, Apple, and Roku et al play the role of the gatekeepers. And the consequences of asking them to close their gates to certain ideas will be the same now as they were then: the loss of important discourse, discourse we need in order to achieve meaningful and lasting change.

There are of course a few points to note here. One is that asking television networks to censor is different than asking other businesses to cut ties to organizations whose views may be odious. Withdrawing sponsorships, for instance, takes away the oxygen an entity needs to survive as a viable enterprise. True, cutting off an avenue for expression may certainly make spreading its ideas more difficult, and perhaps cut down on its income, but it can at most damage the organization. It doesn't get rid of its ideas. Its ideas will persist.

Furthermore these are calls for private censorship, not public censorship, the latter of which the First Amendment applies to. The First Amendment also protects calls for private censorship, but it doesn't make them a good idea. And calls for private censorship have a habit of leaking into public policy. Laugh-In was produced in an age where its network's FCC license was threatened. Apple, YouTube, Roku et al exist in an age where reactive legislatures keep finding themselves tempted to slap the hands of technology companies, whether it's a good idea to or not. It's not a healthy reflex to look to banning an idea as a way to deal with an undesirable one, and it would not be good to become so inured to responding this way in a private context that we tempt in in the public one. The First Amendment doesn't automatically stop every censoring policy, and a lot of damage to discourse can occur before the First Amendment can put an end to an unconstitutional regulatory response.

But the reason it's not a healthy response is because banning ideas is not an effective way to deal with them. The only way to defeat bad ideas is in the marketplace of ideas, where through open conversation a better consensus can evolve. There are no shortcuts; better ideas can't win the day by trying to suppress contrary ones. Pushing for censorship that favors certain ideas only creates a vacuum where those ideas can become artificially distorted and more extreme, with no countervailing views available to temper them. And it risks having those very same preferred ideas later shut out, because restricting public discourse to only some ideas is not the same thing as convincing anyone of their merit.

What is happening to the NRA now is testament to this reality: suppressing gun control discussion didn't give the NRA a world where those contrary ideas no longer existed. Instead it gave itself a world where its own views arguably became more extreme and now stand to be repudiated – or even themselves potentially suppressed.

But such anti-NRA suppression would be unfortunate, for the exact same reason that it was wrong, and ultimately ineffective, when the NRA did it. Censorship only inhibits progress. Meaningful and lasting change only happens when minds are changed, and that can only happen when people can talk freely about the issues affecting them. Perhaps the NRA thought its views had prevailed when it was able to control the public discussion about guns, but the backlash today shows that it was a fleeting and feeble victory. Those who wish to push an alternative policy agenda now should heed that lesson, to make sure that any gains they hope to make are not equally feeble and fleeting.

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Posted on Free Speech - 26 February 2018 @ 10:44am

Section 230 Isn't About Facebook, It's About You

from the know-what-you've-got-before-it's-gone dept

Longtime Techdirt readers know how important Section 230 is for the Internet to work, as well as many of the reasons why the proposed SESTA bill threatens the operation of the law, and with it the operation of the Internet. But especially for people less familiar with the ins and outs of Section 230, as the law hangs in the balance, we want to take moment to explain why it's something that everyone should want to preserve.

These days a lot of people are upset with Facebook, along with many other of its fellow big Internet companies. Being upset with these companies can make it tempting to try to punish them with regulation that might hurt them. But it does no good to punish them with regulation that will end up hurting everyone – including you.

Yet that’s what the bill Congress is about to vote on will do. SESTA (or sometimes SESTA-FOSTA) would make changes that reduce the effectiveness of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. While a change to this law would certainly hurt the Facebooks of the world, it is not just the Facebooks that should care. You should too, and here's why.

Section 230 is a federal statute that says that people who use the Internet are responsible for how they use it—but only those people are, and not those who provide the services that make it possible for people to use the Internet in the first place. The reason it's important to have this law is because so many people – hundreds, thousands, millions, if not billions of people – use these services to say or do so many things on the Internet. Of course, the reality is, sometimes people use these Internet services to say or do dumb, awful, or even criminal things, and naturally we have lots of laws to punish these dumb, awful, or criminal things. But think about what it would mean for Internet service providers if all those laws that punish bad ways people use the Internet could be directed at them. Even for big companies like Facebook it would be impossibly expensive to have to defend themselves every time someone used their services in these unfortunate ways. Section 230 means that they don't have to, and that they can remain focused on providing Internet services for all the hundreds, thousands, millions, if not billions of people – including people like you – who use their services in good ways.

If, however, Section 230 stops effectively protecting these service providers, then they will have to start limiting how people can use their services because it will be too expensive to risk letting anyone use their services in potentially wrongful ways. And because it’s not possible for Internet service providers to correctly and accurately filter the sheer volume of content they intermediate, they will end up having to limit too much good content in order to make sure they don’t end up in trouble for having limited too little of the bad.

This inevitable censorship should matter to you even if you are not a Facebook user, because it won't just be Facebook that will be forced to censor how you use the Internet. Ever bought or sold something on line? Rented an apartment? Posted or watched a video? Found anything useful through a search engine? Your ability to speak, learn, buy, sell, complain, organize, or do anything else online depends on Internet services being able to depend on Section 230 to let you. It isn't just the big commercial services like Facebook who need Section 230, but Internet service providers of all sorts of shapes and sizes, including broadband ISPs, email providers, online marketplaces, consumer review sites, fan forums, online publications that host user comments… Section 230 even enables non-commercial sites like Wikipedia. As a giant collection of information other people have provided, if Section 230’s protection evaporates, then so will Wikipedia's ability to provide this valuable resource.

Diminishing Section 230's protection also not only affects your ability to use existing Internet services, but new ones too. There’s a reason so many Internet companies are based in the United States, where Section 230 has made it safe for start-ups to develop innovative services without fear of crippling liability, and then grow into successful businesses employing thousands. Particularly if you dislike Facebook you should fear a future without Section 230: big companies can afford to take some lumps, but without Section 230's protection good luck ever getting a new service that's any better.

And that's not all: weakening Section 230 not only hurts you by hurting Internet service providers; it also hurts you directly. Think about emails you forward. Comment threads you allow on Facebook posts. Tweets you retweet. These are all activities Section 230 can protect. After all, you're not the person who wrote the original emails, comments, or tweets, so why should you get in trouble if the original author said or did something dumb, awful, or even criminal in those emails, comments, or tweets? Section 230 makes many of the ordinary ways you use the Internet possible, but without it all bets are off.

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Posted on Techdirt - 22 February 2018 @ 1:47pm

Court Destroys Future Public Art Installations By Holding Building Owner Liable For Destroying This One

from the no-good-deed-goes-unpunished dept

Last week was a big week for dramatically bad copyright rulings from the New York federal courts: the one finding people liable for infringement if they embed others' content in their own webpages, and this one about 5Pointz, where a court has found a building owner liable for substantial monetary damages for having painted his own building. While many have hailed this decision, including those who have mistakenly viewed it as a win for artists, this post explains why it is actually bad for everyone.

The facts in this case are basically this: the owner of a run-down, formerly industrial building in a run-down neighborhood aspired to do something to redevelop his property, but it would be a few years before the time would be right. So in the meantime he let some graffiti artists use the building for their aerosol paintings. The building became known as 5Pointz, and the artwork on it soon began to attract attention. The neighborhood also began to change, and with the improvement the prospects for redeveloping the property into residences became more promising. From the outset everyone knew that redevelopment would happen eventually, and that it would put an end to the arrangement since the redevelopment would likely necessitate tearing down the building, and with it the art on the walls. As the date of demolition grew closer, the artists considered buying the building from the owner in order to prevent it from being torn down and thus preserve the art. However the owner had received a variance that suddenly made the value of the property skyrocket from $40 million to $200 million, which made the buyout impossible. So the artists instead sued to halt the destruction of their art and asked for a preliminary injunction, which would ensure that nothing happened to the art while the case was litigated. But in late 2013 the court denied the preliminary injunction, and so a few days later the building owner went ahead and painted over the walls. The painting-over didn't end the litigation, which then became focused on whether this painting-over broke the law. In 2017 the court issued a ruling allowing the case to proceed to trial on this question. Then last week came the results of that trial, with the court finding this painting-over a "willfully" "infringing" act and assessing a $6.7 million damages award against the owner for it.

It may be tempting to cheer the news that an apparently wealthy man has been ordered to pay $6.7 million to poorer artists for damaging their art. True -- the building owner, with his valuable property, seems to be someone who potentially could afford to share some of that wealth with artists who are presumably of lesser means. But we can't assume that a defendant building owner, who wants to be able to do with his property what he is normally legally allowed to do, will always be the one with all the money, and the plaintiff artist will always be the one without those resources. The law applies to all cases, no matter which party is richer, and the judicial reasoning at play in this case could just as easily apply if Banksy happened to paint the side of your house and you no longer wanted what he had painted to remain there. Per this decision, removing it could turn into an expensive proposition.

The decision presents several interrelated reasons for concern. Some arise from the law underpinning it, the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990, an amendment to copyright law that, as described below, turned the logic of copyright law on its head. But there are also some alarming things about this particular decision, especially surrounding the application of high statutory damages for what the court deemed "willful" "infringement," that accentuate everything that's wrong with VARA and present issues of its own.

With respect to the law itself, prior to VARA the point of copyright law (at least in the US) was to make sure that the most works could be created to best promote the progress of the sciences and useful arts (as the Constitution prescribed). The copyright statute did this by giving creators economic rights, or rights designed to ensure that if there was money to be made from their works, they would have first crack at making it. The thinking was that with this economic incentive, creators would create more works, and thus the public interest goal of having more works created would be realized.

VARA changed this statutory equation for certain kinds of visual works. Instead of economic rights, it gave their creators certain moral rights, including (as relevant for this case), the right to preserve the integrity of their work. This right of integrity includes the right

(A) to prevent any intentional destruction, mutilation, or other modification of that work which would be prejudicial to his or her honor or reputation, and any intentional distortion, mutilation, or modification of that work is a violation of that right, and
(B) to prevent any destruction of a work of recognized stature, and any intentional or grossly negligent destruction of that work is a violation of that right.

Which may sound well and good, but as we see with the costly way the statute plays out, rather than creating economic incentives stimulating the creation of new works, it has now created economic effects inhibiting them, which in the long run will only hurt the artists VARA was intended to help.

The most obvious way it hurts them is by deterring property owners from allowing any art to be installed on their property, because it means that if they do, they may be forever stuck with it. Allowing art to be installed means they will either stand to lose the control they would have had without it (itself a hit to the property's worth), or potentially be faced with thousands if not millions of dollars in liability if they do what they want with their property anyway. And what property owner would want to chance such dire consequences in order to encourage art?

Granted, some of this risk can be ameliorated with written agreements, which were lacking in this case. But if all public art requires lawyered paperwork, it raises costs and will deter both artist and property owner from pursuing this sort of mutually beneficial arrangement. In this case the property owner had let the artists use his building to create, for free, by unwritten agreement simply because at the time they all agreed that it was good for both of them. It will not be good for creativity if we discourage this sort of symbiotic relationship from taking root.

It also will not be good for future artists whose economic interests might have benefited from other such opportunities like those 5Pointz offered. Even in this case the court noted all the evidence presented in "Folios", showing that being able to paint the building had opened up all sorts of doors for the artists to reap further economic rewards for their art. Artists will have fewer opportunities for that sort of career-enhancing exposure if landlords are deterred from giving it to them.

There is an implicit argument present in the plaintiffs' case that some of the rise in the value of the building was due to the artwork, and that it would therefore be just to share some of that windfall with them. But by this same logic, the building owner would have been similarly responsible for, and thus entitled to a portion of, the rise in value of the work of the artists whom he had allowed to exhibit. It would not be good for artists in the long run if they should find themselves needing to share their good fortune with their benefactors – or be potentially liable for any loss in their property value, should the presence of their work diminish it.

This case also stands to have some directly chilling effects on artists. While this case is not about graffiti artists suing each other for painting over each other's works (as the court noted, up to now graffiti artists have routinely painted over each others' works without any more severe penalty than social approbation, if even that), it's not clear why, if the decision stands, the next case couldn't be. The decision found that a VARA claim could be vindicated regardless of whether a work was temporary or permanent, and instead focused on whether a work had achieved the stature needed to be entitled to protection under the statute. It won't be good for artists if they have to fear being tied up in litigation with their peers due to the transient nature of their medium (or locked out of being able to create at all because others have already used all the good spaces first), or caught in a judicial cage match to determine whose work has the stature to be more deserving of protection.

It is possible that the court erred, and transient art falls outside VARA's purview. But there is enough ambiguity in the statute to potentially extend to it, and in any case, the statute's deterring effects would apply to all sorts of art, not just aerosol-painted art. Unfortunately at no point does the decision contemplate these effects, or its effects on other important policy values such as urban planning and affordable housing, if VARA is able to trump other forms of law, such as property law, that normally speak to what a building owner may do. The decision also largely ignores that the building owner had let the artists paint there in the first place, when he didn't have to. And it ignores that the building owner had done this apparently now wrongful painting-over of the art on his walls after this very same court denied an injunction that would have told him not to. None of these factors mattered to the court.

But all of them should matter to us, as should the extremely troubling way the court found his "infringement" (in other words, the painting-over) "willful," and thus subject to heightened damages. This is where the decision not only encapsulates the policy flaws of VARA, but also threatens to be seriously distorting to copyright doctrine (and other law) generally.

One troubling aspect is the punitive attitude by the court towards the building owner for having painted over the art after the very same court had denied an injunction preventing it. In between its order of November 12, 2013 denying the preliminary injunction, and its November 20, 2013 decision explaining its order (embedded below), the building owner had gone ahead and done the painting-over. This act appears to have outraged the court, whose November 20 decision reads more as an explanation for why it probably should have issued the injunction, now that in the intervening time the owner had painted over it.

As the court correctly observed in this 2013 opinion, preliminary injunctions exist so that courts can prevent irreparable harm at the outset that a court is likely to later rule needs to be prevented, if it would be too late to unring the bell at that point. In fact the language the court cited for the injunction is so standard that when the naked order denying the preliminary injunction was issued, it was perfectly reasonable for the building owner to presume that either (a) he was likely to win the case and be able to do what he wanted to the building, or (b) it wasn't such a severe harm if he removed the art now and later the court decided he shouldn't have, or (c) some combination of both. So it reads as a serious miscarriage of justice for the court's 2018 decision to punish him for going ahead and removing the art, or "recklessly disregard[ing] the possibility" that removing it would be wrongful, as the court put it.

Furthermore, if the court is right in its 2018 decision that the painting-over raised a valid VARA claim, then it was wrong to deny the injunction in 2013. Problematic though it is for VARA to introduce non-economic rights into copyright law, the whole point of one of them – the right to maintain the integrity of the work – can only be vindicated with an injunction. If this right were something that could be adequately compensated for by monetary damages, then it would start to look a lot more like an economic right. That's not what VARA was ever intended to create, but it is what the court effectively created back in 2013 when it refused the injunction and deemed monetary damages sufficient to address any harm should the VARA claim later prevail.

As it wrote in a confused passage in its 2013 decision:

Although the works have now been destroyed—and the Court wished it had the power to preserve them—plaintiffs would be hard-pressed to contend that no amount of money would compensate them for their paintings; and VARA—which makes no distinction between temporary and permanent works of visual art—provides that significant monetary damages may be awarded for their wrongful destruction. See 17 U.S.C. §§ 501-505 (providing remedies for VARA violations). In any event, paintings generally are meant to be sold. Their value is invariably reflected in the money they command in the marketplace. Here, the works were painted for free, but surely the plaintiffs would gladly have accepted money from the defendants to acquire their works, albeit on a wall rather than on a canvas.

It continued more bizarrely:

Moreover, plaintiffs’ works can live on in other media. The 24 works have been photographed, and the court, during the hearing, exhorted the plaintiffs to photograph all those which they might wish to preserve. All would be protected under traditional copyright law, see 17 U.S.C. § 106 (giving, inter alia, copyright owners of visual works of art the exclusive rights to reproduce their works, to prepare derivative works, and to sell and publicly display the works), and could be marketed to the general public—even to those who had never been to 5Pointz.

In the court's defense, it is correct that VARA does allow for infringements of moral rights to be compensated by monetary damages. But it shouldn't be the primary form of relief, and the court's punitive use of the highest amount of statutory damages to compensate the artists exemplifies why. Statutory damages are normally for when it is hard to measure economic loss and so we have to instead make some presumptions about how much compensation that loss deserves. There are already plenty of problems with these presumptions tending to allow for the recovery of far more than what actual losses would have been, but this decision magnifies their problematic nature by allowing statutory damages not only to overcompensate economic loss but to overcompensate non-economic loss. In other words, congratulations, we now have "pain and suffering" in copyright cases.

Perhaps in a way we always have – the overuse of statutory damages has always suggested that is really a retributive, rather than truly compensatory, damages measure. In this case, the court is perfectly frank that's what it's doing:

If not for Wolkoff’s insolence, these damages would not have been assessed. If he did not destroy 5Pointz until he received his permits and demolished it 10 months later, the Court would not have found that he had acted willfully. Given the degree of difficulty in proving actual damages, a modest amount of statutory damages would probably have been more in order.

But courts have always maintained the facade that compensation for emotional harm is unavailable in copyright cases. The 5Pointz court even acknowledges this limitation in footnote 18 of its 2018 decision:

Plaintiffs contend that they are entitled to damages for emotional distress. Under traditional copyright law, plaintiffs cannot recover such damages. See Garcia v. Google, Inc., 786 F.3d 733, 745 (9th Cir. 2015) (“[A]uthors cannot seek emotional damages under the Copyright Act, because such damages are unrelated to the value and marketability of their works.”); Kelley v. Universal Music Group, 2016 WL 5720766, at *2 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 29, 2016) (“Because emotional distress damages are not compensable under the Copyright Act, this claim must also be dismissed.”). Since VARA provides damages under “the same standards that the courts presently use” under traditional copyright law, H.R. Rep. No. 101-514, at 21-22 (1990), emotional damages are not recoverable.

But the outright hostility the court repeatedly shows the defendant, in the language in both decisions, makes it clear that statutory damages are being used to compensate for what is otherwise a purely emotional harm. From the 2018 decision:

The whitewash did not end the conflict in one go; the effects lingered for almost a year. The sloppy, half-hearted nature of the whitewashing left the works easily visible under thin layers of cheap, white paint, reminding the plaintiffs on a daily basis what had happened. The mutilated works were visible by millions of people on the passing 7 train. One plaintiff, Miyakami, said that upon seeing her characters mutilated in that manner, it "felt like [she] was raped." Tr. at 1306:24-25.

There are good reasons why we do not allow copyright to remediate hurt feelings, not the least of which being that they are likely to run raw on both sides. From an article from last year (before the $6.7 million judgment):

Wolkoff feels betrayed by the artists he thought he was helping by lending them his wall to bomb. He cried when the building came down, he confessed, and said he would bring back more street artists to paint at the location after the renovation—just not those who sued.

Notably in its 2017 ruling (also embedded below) allowing the VARA claim to go forward, the court dismissed the artists' claims for intentional infliction of emotional distress, despite the strong emotions the case had engendered.

Because the defendants destroyed 5Pointz only after the Court dissolved its temporary restraining order and did no more than raze what they rightfully owned, the defendants simply did not engage in the kind of outrageous and uncivilized conduct for whose punishment this disfavored tort was designed.

And therein lies the rub: the building owner did no more than what other law clearly allowed. But by allowing artists to bring claims for the "intentional distortion, mutilation, or other modification . . . [of works that] would be prejudicial to [the artist’s] honor or reputation" the court has set up a direct conflict between VARA and what traditional copyright law, and traditional property law, have allowed. And it has done this without addressing any of the implications of this new policy collision.

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Posted on Techdirt - 12 February 2018 @ 3:35pm

Ninth Circuit Shuts Down 'Terrorists Used Twitter' Case But Not Because Of Section 230

from the this-is-ok-too dept

With the event at Santa Clara earlier this month, and the companion essays published here, we've been talking a lot lately about how platforms moderate content. It can be a challenging task for a platform to figure out how to balance dealing with the sometimes troubling content it can find itself intermediating on the one hand and free speech concerns on the other. But at least, thanks to Section 230, platforms have been free to do the best they could to manage these competing interests. However you may think they make these decisions now, they would not come out any better without that statutory protection insulating them from legal consequence if they did not opt to remove absolutely everything that could tempt trouble. If they had to contend with the specter of liability in making these decisions it would inevitably cause platforms to play a much more censoring role at the expense of legitimate user speech.

Fearing such a result is why the Copia Institute filed an amicus brief at the Ninth Circuit last year in Fields v. Twitter, one of the many "how dare you let terrorists use the Internet" cases that keep getting filed against Internet platforms. While it's problematic that they keep getting filed, they have fortunately not tended to get very far. I say "fortunately," because although it is terrible what has happened to the victims of these attacks, if platforms could be liable for what terrorists do it would end up chilling platforms' ability to intermediate any non-terrorist speech. Thus we, along with the EFF and the Internet Association (representing many of the bigger Internet platforms), had all filed briefs urging the Ninth Circuit to find, as the lower courts have tended to, that Section 230 insulates platforms from these types of lawsuits.

A few weeks ago the Ninth Circuit issued its decision. The good news is that this decision affirms that the end has been reached in this particular case and hopefully will deter future ones. However the court did not base its reasoning on the existence of Section 230. While somewhat disappointing because we saw this case as an important opportunity to buttress Section 230's critical statutory protection, by not speaking to it at all it also didn't undermine it, and the fact the court ruled this way isn't actually bad. By focusing instead on the language of the Anti-Terrorism Act itself (this is the statute barring the material support of terrorists), it was still able to lessen the specter of legal liability that would otherwise chill platforms and force them to censor more speech.

In fact, it may even be better that the court ruled this way. The result is not fundamentally different than what a decision based on Section 230 would have led to: like with the ATA, which the court found would have required some direct furtherance by the platform of the terrorist act, so would Section 230 have required the platform's direct interaction with the creation of user content furthering the act in order for the platform to potentially be liable for its consequences. But the more work Section 230 does to protect platforms legally, the more annoyed people seem to get at it politically. So by not being relevant to the adjudication of these sorts of tragic cases it won't throw more fuel on the political fire seeking to undermine the important speech-protective work Section 230 does, and then it hopefully will remain safely on the books for the next time we need it.

[Side note: the Ninth Circuit originally issued the decision on January 31, but then on 2/2 released an updated version correcting a minor typographical error. The version linked here is the latest and greatest.]

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Posted on Techdirt - 31 January 2018 @ 9:08am

My Question To Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein On Encryption Backdoors

from the golden-key-and-databreach dept

Never mind all the other reasons Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein's name has been in the news lately... this post is about his comments at the State of the Net conference in DC on Monday. In particular: his comments on encryption backdoors.

As he and so many other government officials have before, he continued to press for encryption backdoors, as if it were possible to have a backdoor and a functioning encryption system. He allowed that the government would not itself need to have the backdoor key; it could simply be a company holding onto it, he said, as if this qualification would lay all concerns to rest.

But it does not, and so near the end of his talk I asked the question, "What is a company to do if it suffers a data breach and the only thing compromised is the encryption key it was holding onto?"

There were several concerns reflected in this question. One relates to what the poor company is to do. It's bad enough when they experience a data breach and user information is compromised. Not only does a data breach undermine a company's relationship with its users, but, recognizing how serious this problem is, authorities are increasingly developing policy instructing companies on how they are to respond to such a situation, and it can expose the company to significant legal liability if it does not comport with these requirements.

But if an encryption key is taken it is so much more than basic user information, financial details, or even the pool of potentially rich and varied data related to the user's interactions with the company that is at risk. Rather, it is every single bit of information the user has ever depended on the encryption system to secure that stands to be compromised. What is the appropriate response of a company whose data breach has now stripped its users of all the protection they depended on for all this data? How can it even begin to try to mitigate the resulting harm? Just what would government officials, who required the company to keep this backdoor key, now propose it do? Particularly if the government is going to force companies to be in this position of holding onto these keys, these answers are something they are going to need to know if they are going to be able to afford to be in the encryption business at all.

Which leads to the other idea I was hoping the question would capture: that encryption policy and cybersecurity policy are not two distinct subjects. They interrelate. So when government officials worry about what bad actors do, as Rosenstein's comments reflected, it can't lead to the reflexive demand that encryption be weakened simply because, as they reason, bad actors use encryption. Not when the same officials are also worried about bad actors breaching systems, because this sort of weakened encryption so significantly raises the cost of these breaches (as well as potentially makes them easier).

Unfortunately Rosenstein had no good answer. There was lots of equivocation punctuated with the assertion that experts had assured him that it was feasible to create backdoors and keep them safe. Time ran out before anyone could ask the follow-up question of exactly who were these mysterious experts giving him this assurance, especially in light of so many other experts agreeing that such a solution is not possible, but perhaps this answer is something Senator Wyden can find out...

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Posted on Free Speech - 24 January 2018 @ 1:34pm

Wherein We Ask The California Supreme Court To Lessen The Damage The Court Of Appeal Caused To Speech

from the nothing-to-see-here dept

A few weeks ago we posted an update on Montagna v. Nunis. This was a case where a plaintiff subpoenaed Yelp for the identity of a user. The trial court originally denied Yelp's attempt to quash the subpoena – and sanctioned it for trying – on the grounds that platforms had no right to stand in for their users to assert their First Amendment rights. We filed an amicus brief in support of Yelp's appeal of that decision, which fortunately the Court of Appeal reversed, joining another Court of Appeal that earlier in the year had also decided that of course it was ok for platforms to try to quash subpoenas seeking to unmask their users.

Unfortunately, that was only part of what this Court of Appeal decided. Even though it agreed that Yelp could TRY to quash a subpoena, it decided that it couldn't quash this particular one. That's unfortunate for the user, who was just unmasked. But what made it unfortunate for everyone is that this decision was fully published, which means it can be cited as precedent by other plaintiffs who want to unmask users. While having the first part of the decision affirming Yelp's right to quash the subpoena is a good thing, the logic that the Court used in the second part is making it a lot easier for plaintiffs to unmask users – even when they really shouldn't be entitled to.

So Yelp asked the California Supreme Court to partially depublish the ruling – or, in other words, make the bad parts of it stop being precedent that subsequent litigants can cite in their unmasking attempts (there are rules that prevent California lawyers from citing unpublished cases in their arguments, except under extremely limited circumstances). And this week we filed our own brief at the California Supreme Court in support of Yelp's request, arguing that the Court of Appeal's analysis was inconsistent with other California policy and precedent protecting speech, and that without its depublication it will lead to protected speech being chilled.

None of this will change the outcome of the earlier decision - the user will remain unmasked. But hopefully it will limit the effect of that Court of Appeal's decision with respect to the unmasking to the facts of that particular case.

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Posted on Techdirt - 22 January 2018 @ 1:43pm

Tech Policy A Year Into The Trump Administration: Where Are We Now?

from the crystal-ball-testing dept

Shortly after Trump was elected I wrote a post predicting how things might unfold on the tech policy front with the incoming administration. It seems worth taking stock, now almost a year into it, to see how those predictions may have played out.

Most of this post will track the way the issues were broken down last time. But it is first worth commenting how in one significant overarching way last year's post does not hold up: it presumed, even if only naively in the face of evidence already suggesting otherwise, that the Trump administration would function with the competency and coherence that presidential administrations have generally functioned with in order to function at all, let alone effectively enough to drive forth a set of preferred policy positions. There seems to be growing consensus that this presumption was and remains unsound.

Furthermore, the normal sort of political considerations that traditionally have both animated and limited presidential policy advocacy do not seem applicable to this presidency. As a result, conventional political wisdom in other areas of government also now seems to be changing, as the rest of the political order reacts to what Trump actually has done in his year as President and prepares for the next major round of elections in 2018.

Free speech/copyright – For better or for worse, the Trump administration does not seem to be particularly interested in copyright policy, but it has nonetheless had an effect on it. The denial of the cert petition in Lenz following a strange brief from the Trump Administration's Solicitor General and the appointment of Justice Gorsuch will leave a mark, as without teeth being put back into the DMCA to deter abusive takedown notices, content will still be vulnerable to illegitimate takedown demands of all sorts of speech, including political speech. If there's one thing the Trump administration has accomplished it has been to make people much more politically aware, and we've already seen instances of people using the DMCA's notice and takedown system to try to suppress speech they don't like. To be fair, we've seen people of all political persuasions do this, but the concern is heightened when the views of those who already have power to suppress the views of those that do not. (Note also: it is not clear that a Clinton Solicitor General would have written an any more solicitous brief in support of Lenz, or that a justice other than Gorsuch would have changed the cert vote. Plenty of Democratic appointees have been disappointing on the copyright front. However, it is a policy result that is directly due to the new administration.)

More interestingly, however, is the impact on future copyright policy (and, indeed, lots of other tech policy) caused by the political toll the Trump administration has been having on the GOP. The impending retirements of Reps. Goodlatte and Issa, for instance, will lose the tempering influence they have sometimes had on some of the worst copyright policy pushes.

On the speech front, however, it looks like all the worry about the Trump administration last year has been born out. From Trump's frequent and overt diminishment of a free and independent media, to his constant legal threats to sue critics, to his administration's outright abuse of power to try to unmask them – and more – the Trump presidency tends to be an extremely cogent example of why it is so critically important to protect the right of free speech from government incursion.

Mass surveillance/encryption – This issue is always a mess, but now it's a mess in new ways that have realigned some of the political leanings, which may create opportunity but also creates new reasons for concern.

In litigation challenging digital surveillance the details of the surveillance obviously matter: what government authority is trying to do what, to whom, and under what statutory authority all affects the judicial inquiry. But in some ways none of these details matter: the essential question underpinning all these cases is what a state actor can constitutionally do to invade the privacy of its people. Whether the state actor is wearing an FBI hat, a CIA hat, an NSA one, a local police one, or some other official hat doesn't really matter to the person whose private dealings are now exposed to government review. But President Trump's unpopularity, petulance, and track record of threatened, if not actual, attacks on his political enemies should make it easy to see the problem with giving the government too much surveillance power since it means giving someone like him that much surveillance power. His attempts to increasingly politicize our various investigatory agencies further drives home this point because the more government surveillance is politicized, the people with opposing viewpoints will be hurt by those with political power able to wield this surveillance power against them.

On the other hand, there are serious allegations of wrongdoing by Trump, his family, and his associates, including allegations that raise serious national security concerns, and it is only because of the work of many of these investigatory agencies that these allegations stand any chance of being uncovered and appropriately prosecuted. And as a result, many who should be fearing the power of these investigatory agencies, simply because as state actors their behavior always needs to be subject to check, are now suddenly feeling quite cheerful about enabling these agencies and enhancing their power, even where the Constitution should forbid it.

Figuring out how to empower police in a way that protects our democracy without undermining the civil liberties that also protect our democracy requires a careful, nuanced conversation. Yet it's not one that we are having or seem likely to have under this administration. But if these agencies do become politicized as a result of Trump's presidency, it may then be too late to have it.

Net neutrality/intermediary immunity – Things are bad on both these fronts, although the impact of the Trump administration is different on each.

With regard to the former topic, the elevation of Chairman Pai by Trump opened the door to the most direct and obvious incursion on Net Neutrality protection. There's no point in dwelling on it here; read any of the many other posts here to see why. While it is possible that any Republican president would have made a similar appointment, a Democratic president would likely have made an appointment resulting in a different balance of power among the FCC commissioners. But there is also something rather Trumpian about Pai's move as well, the choice to govern by brute force rather than consensus, and it is also possible that a more politically-attuned Republican administration would have encouraged its appointee to have used a lighter hand in setting policy, particularly in light of significant opposition against this particular move, including from both sides of the aisle.

On the intermediary immunity front Section 230 is under heavy attack. Fortunately the Trump administration itself does not seem to be directly stoking the legislative fires; some of the most significant attacks on Section 230 have largely been instigated by Democrats (although with some bipartisan support). In general the Democrats appear to be a party whose political fortunes are on the rise due to Trump's unpopularity and resulting GOP incumbent retirements, including (as discussed above) some who have historically been helpful on the tech policy front. Although there are some outstanding Democrats on these sorts of issues (i.e., Wyden, Lofgren) tech policy has not often followed standard red-blue party lines, and a legislative switch back to blue overall will not necessarily lead to better policy on these issues overall as well.

Especially not when the Trump administration has in many ways been inspiring the attacks on platforms. It has become easy, for instance, for people to fault social media for his rise and for some of the worst things about his presidency (e.g., provoking North Korea on Twitter). As with mass surveillance Trump's unpopularity is tempting many to see as palatable any policy they think might temper him. Unfortunately, like with mass surveillance, this belief that a policy might have this tempering quality is often wrong. For the same reason that Trump is Exhibit A for why we should not do anything to enhance government surveillance power, it is also Exhibit A for why we should not do anything to undermine free speech, including online free speech, which these legislative attacks on platforms only invite.

Internet governance – Trump has been a disaster on the foreign policy front, measurably lowering the esteem of America in the eyes of the world. True, as discussed last year, by abandoning the TPP he spared us the harm to the important liberty interests the TPP would have imposed, but in nearly every other way he has undermined those same interests by making it more tempting and politically easier for other countries to try to set policy that will affect how everyone, including Americans, gets to use the Internet.

What I wrote last time remains apt:

Unfortunately Trump's presidency appears to have precipitated a loss of credibility on the world stage, creating a situation where it seems unlikely that other countries will be as inclined to yield to American leadership on any further issues affecting tech policy (or any policy in general) as they may have been in the past. … It was already challenging enough to convince other countries that they should do things our way, particularly with respect to free speech principles and the like, but at least when we used to tell the world, "Do it our way, because this is how we've safely preserved our democracy for 200 years," people elsewhere (however reluctantly) used to listen. But now people around the world are starting to have some serious doubts about our commitment to [...] freedom and connectivity for all.

But last year I noted that his administration also created opportunity to push for those values, and that view still holds today:

So we will need to tweak our message to one that has more traction. Our message to the world now is that recent events have made it all the more important to actively preserve those key American values, particularly with respect to free speech, because it is all that stands between freedom and disaster. Now is no time to start shackling technology, or the speech it enables, with external controls imposed by other nations to limit it. Not only can the potential benevolence of these attempts not be presumed, but we are now facing a situation where it is all the more important to ensure that we have the tools to enable dissenting viewpoints to foment [into] viable political movements sufficient to counter the threat posed by the powerful. This pushback cannot happen if other governments insist on hobbling the Internet's essential ability to broker these connections and ideas. It needs to remain free in order for all of us to [remain free] as well.

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Posted on Techdirt - 12 December 2017 @ 3:40pm

It Was Twenty(-odd) Years Ago Today When The Internet Looked Much Different Than It Does Now

from the time-machine dept

Last week, Mike and I were at a conference celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision in Reno v. ACLU, a seminal case that declared that the First Amendment applied online. What makes the case so worth a conference celebrating it is not just what it meant as a legal matter – it's a significant step forward in First Amendment jurisprudence – but also what it meant as a practical matter. This decision was hugely important in allowing the internet to develop into what it is today, and that evolution may not be something we adequately appreciate. It's easy to forget and pretend the internet we know today was always a ubiquitous presence, but that wasn't always so, and it wasn't so back then. Indeed, it's quite striking just how much has changed in just two decades.

So this seemed like a good occasion to look back at how things were then. The attached paper is a re-publication of the honors thesis I wrote in 1996 as a senior at the University of California at Berkeley. As the title indicates, it was designed to study internet adoption among my fellow students, who had not yet all started using it. Even those who had were largely dependent on the University to provide them their access, and that access had only recently started to be offered on any significant a campus-wide basis. And not all of the people who had started using the internet found it to be something their lives necessarily needed. (For instance, when asked if they would continue to use the internet after the University no longer provided their access, a notable number of people said no.) This study tried to look at what influences or reasons the decision to use, or not use, the internet pivoted upon.

I do of course have some pause, now a few decades further into my career, calling attention to work I did as a stressed-out undergraduate. However, I still decided to dig it up and publish it, because there aren't many snapshots documenting internet usage from that time. And that's a problem, because it's important to understand how the internet transitioned from being an esoteric technology used only by some into a much more pervasive one seemingly used by nearly everyone, and why that change happened, especially if we want to understand how it will continue to change, and how we might want to shape that change. All too often it seems tech policy is made with too little serious consideration of the sociology behind how people use the internet – the human decisions internet usage represents – and it really needs to be part of the conversation more. Hopefully studies like this one can help with that.

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Posted on Techdirt - 15 November 2017 @ 10:43am

Ninth Circuit Lets Us See Its Glassdoor Ruling, And It's Terrible

from the making-secret-jurisprudence-public-precedent dept

Well, I was wrong: last week I lamented that we might never know how the Ninth Circuit ruled on Glassdoor's attempt to quash a federal grand jury subpoena served upon it demanding it identify users. Turns out, now we do know: two days after the post ran the court publicly released its decision refusing to quash the subpoena. It's a decision that doubles-down on everything wrong with the original district court decision that also refused to quash it, only now with handy-dandy Ninth Circuit precedential weight.

Like the original ruling, it clings to the Supreme Court's decision in Branzburg v. Hayes, a case where the Supreme Court explored the ability of anyone to resist a grand jury subpoena. But in doing so it manages to ignore other, more recent, Supreme Court precedents that should have led to the opposite result.

Here is the fundamental problem with both the district court and Ninth Circuit decisions: anonymous speakers have the right to speak anonymously. (See, e.g., the post-Branzburg Supreme Court decision McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission). Speech rights also carry forth onto the Internet. (See, e.g., another post-Branzburg Supreme Court decision, Reno v. ACLU). But if the platforms hosting that speech can always be forced to unmask their users via grand jury subpoena, then there is no way for that right to ever meaningfully exist in the context of online speech.

Yet neither of these more recent Supreme Court decisions seems to have had any impact on either the district court or Ninth Circuit's thinking. Instead both courts seem to feel their hands are tied, that in the 1970s the Supreme Court set forth, once and for all, the rule that no one can ever resist federal grand jury subpoenas, except in very limited circumstances, and that this ruling was the final word on their enforceability, no matter what the context. But as I wrote in the previous post, what the Supreme Court said in Branzburg about the enforceability of grand jury subpoenas only related to those that arose from a specific context, journalists shielding sources, and the only question before the court then was whether journalists, as journalists, had the ability to refuse them. The Supreme Court never considered whether there might be any other set of circumstances where grand jury subpoenas could be resisted. In Branzburg the Supreme Court had only considered the question with respect to journalists.

In fact, to make Branzburg apply to Glassdoor, the Ninth Circuit had to try to squeeze Internet intermediaries like Glassdoor into the shoes of reporters and make them seem like one and the same, even when they are not:

Although Glassdoor is not in the news business, as part of its business model it does gather and publish information from sources it has agreed not to identify. It argues that “[a]nonymity is an essential feature of the Glassdoor community,” and that “if employees cannot speak anonymously, they often will not speak at all,” which will reduce the availability of “information about what it is like to work at a particular job and how workers are paid.” In other words, forcing Glassdoor to comply with the grand jury’s subpoena duces tecum will chill First Amendment-protected activity. This is fundamentally the same argument the Supreme Court rejected in Branzburg.

With all due respect to the Ninth Circuit panel, this is not fundamentally the same argument the Supreme Court rejected in Branzburg. As I wrote last week, to view the role of an intermediary platform as the same thing as an intermediary journalist is to fundamentally misunderstand the role of the intermediary platform in intermediating information. It also fundamentally misunderstands the First Amendment interests at stake. This case isn't about the press-related First Amendment rights at issue in Branzburg; they are the speech-related First Amendment rights of online speakers. And it's not the platform's First Amendment interests that Glassdoor is primarily trying to vindicate; it is the interests of the platform's users. Yet here, too, the Ninth Circuit panel misunderstands those interests when it dismisses out of hand the idea that they might have any right not to be unmasked:

Furthermore, Branzburg makes it clear that Glassdoor’s users do not have a First Amendment right not to testify before the investigating grand jury about the comments they initially made under the cloak of anticipated anonymity. See id. at 695 (“[I]f the authorities independently identify the informant, neither his own reluctance to testify nor the objection of the newsman would shield him from grand jury inquiry . . . .”). Therefore, Glassdoor cannot refuse to turn over its users’ identifying information on the grounds that it is protecting its users’ underlying rights.

"Anticipated anonymity" is a pretty grotesque way of describing a constitutional right people expected to be protected by when they chose to speak online. And it suggests a misreading of Branzburg, which never considered speech interests that were truly analogous to those of Internet platform users. Even if there's no First Amendment right to speak anonymously with a reporter it does not follow that there is no First Amendment right to speak anonymously online at all.

But that's the upshot to this decision: people who wish to speak anonymously online, in any capacity, won't be able to. They will forever be vulnerable to being unmasked by any federal criminal investigation, just so long as the investigation is not being done in bad faith. Nothing else can provide any sort of check on these unmasking demands, regardless of any other interest in play – including those of innocent speakers simply trying to avail themselves of their First Amendment right to speak anonymously, and all those who benefit from that speech.

This is a pretty stark result, and one that stands to affect Internet speakers everywhere. Not only does it threaten those anywhere a grand jury within the Ninth Circuit will be able to reach, but it will serve as persuasive authority governing the enforceability of subpoenas from grand juries in other circuits. It's also one that stands to have this dramatic effect after having been whipped up in secret, with a hidden docket and adamant refusal to accept amicus support. (Although two amici are listed in the caption, it does not appear that either brief was ultimately accepted by the court, much less actually read and considered.) Like anyone who insists on going it alone, without the help of their friends, the results of that obstinate independence have been predictably disastrous. Friends don't let friends inadvertently undermine the First Amendment, and I wish the court had let those of us able to help it see the full implications of this ruling be that friend.

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Posted on Free Speech - 14 November 2017 @ 12:01pm

California Appeals Court Issues A Ruling That Manages To Both Protect And Undermine Online Speech

from the good-news-bad-news dept

Earlier this year I wrote about Yelp's appeal in Montagna v. Nunis. This was a case where a plaintiff had subpoenaed Yelp to unmask one of its users and Yelp tried to resist the subpoena. In that case, not only had the lower court refused to quash the subpoena, but it sanctioned Yelp for having tried to quash it. Per the court, Yelp had no right to try to assert the First Amendment rights of its users as a basis for resisting a subpoena. As we said in the amicus brief I filed for the Copia Institute in Yelp's appeal of the ruling, if the lower court were right it would be bad news for anonymous speakers, because if platforms could not resist unfounded subpoenas then users would lose an important line of defense against all the unfounded subpoenas seeking to unmask them for no legitimate reason.

Fortunately, a California appeals court just agreed it would be problematic if platforms could not push back against these subpoenas. Not only has this decision avoided creating inconsistent law in California (earlier this year a different California appeals court had reached a similar conclusion), but now there is even more language on the books affirming that platforms are able to try to stand up for their users' First Amendment rights, including their right to speak anonymously. As we noted, platforms can't always push back against these discovery demands, but it is often in their interests to try protect the user communities that provide the content that make their platforms valuable. If they never could, it would seriously undermine those user communities and all the content these platforms enable.

The other bit of good news from the decision is that the appeals court overturned the sanction award against Yelp. It would have significantly chilled platforms if they had to think twice before standing up for their users because of how much it could cost them financially for trying to do so.

But any celebration of this decision needs to be tempered by the fact that the appeals court also decided to uphold the subpoena in question. While it didn't fault Yelp for having tried to defend its users, and, importantly, it found that it had the legal ability to, it gave short shrift to that defense.

The test that California uses to decide whether to uphold or quash a subpoena is a test from a case called Krinsky, which asks whether the plaintiff has made a "prima facie" case. In other words, we don't know if the plaintiff necessarily would win, but we want to ensure that it's at least possible for plaintiffs to prevail on their claims before we strip speakers of their anonymity for no good reason. That's all well and good, but thanks to the appeals court's extraordinarily generous read of the statements at issue in this case, one that went out of its way to infer the possibility of falsity in what were at their essence statements of opinion (which is ordinarily protected by the First Amendment), the appeals court decided that the test had been satisfied.

This outcome is not only unfortunate for the user whose identity will now be revealed to the plaintiff but for all future speakers now that there is an appellate decision on the books running through the "prima facie" balancing test in a way that so casually dismisses the protections speech normally has. It at least would have been better if the question considering whether the subpoena should be quashed had been remanded to the lower court, where, even if that court still reached a decision too easily-puncturing of the First Amendment protection for online speech it would have posed less of a risk to other speech in the future.

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Posted on Techdirt - 10 November 2017 @ 12:16pm

Celebrate The 20th Anniversary Of A Seminal Section 230 Case Upholding It With This Series Of Essays

from the Internet-enabling-cases dept

We have been talking a lot lately about how important Section 230 is for enabling innovation and fostering online speech, and, especially as Congress now flirts with erasing its benefits, how fortuitous it was that Congress ever put it on the books in the first place.

But passing the law was only the first step: for it to have meaningful benefit, courts needed to interpret it in a way that allowed for it to have its protective effect on Internet platforms. Zeran v. America Online was one of the first cases to test the bounds of Section 230's protection, and the first to find that protection robust. Had the court decided otherwise, we likely would not have seen the benefits the statute has since then afforded.

This Sunday the decision in Zeran turns 20 years old, and to mark the occasion Eric Goldman and Jeff Kosseff have gathered together more than 20 essays from Internet lawyers and scholars reflecting on the case, the statute, and all of its effects. I have an essay there, "The First Hard Case: ‘Zeran v. AOL’ and What It Can Teach Us About Today’s Hard Cases," as do many other advocates, including lawyers involved with the original case. Even people who are not fans of Section 230 and its legacy are represented. All of these pieces are worth reading and considering, especially by anyone interested in setting policy around these issues.

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Posted on Techdirt - 7 November 2017 @ 9:33am

How The Internet Association's Support For SESTA Just Hurt Facebook And Its Users

from the with-friends-like-these dept

The Internet Association's support for SESTA is truly bizarre. Should its support cause the bill to pass it will be damaging to every one of its members. Perhaps some members feel otherwise, but it is hopelessly naïve for any of them to believe that they will have the resources to stave off all the potential liability, including criminal liability, SESTA invites to their companies generally and to their management teams specifically, or that they will be able to deploy these resources in a way that won't destroy their user communities by over-censoring the creativity and expression they are in the business of providing forums for.

But that's only part of the problem, because what no one seems to be remembering is that Section 230 does not just protect the Internet Association's platform members (and their management teams) from crippling liability; it also protects its platform members' users, and if SESTA passes that protection will be gone.

Naturally, Section 230 does not insulate users from liability in the things they themselves use the platforms to communicate. It never has. That's part of the essential futility of SESTA, because it is trying to solve a problem that was not a problem. People who publish legally wrongful content have always been subject to liability, even federal criminal liability, and SESTA does not change that.

But what everyone seems to forget is that on certain platforms users are not just users; in their use of these systems, they actually become platforms themselves. Facebook users are a prime example of this dynamic, because when users post status updates that are open for commenting, they become intermediary platforms for all those comments. Just as Facebook provides the space for third-party content in the form of status updates, users who post updates are now providing the space for third parties to provide content in the form of comments. And just as Section 230 protects platforms like Facebook from liability in how people use the space it provides, it equally protects its users for the space that they provide. Without Section 230 they would all be equally unprotected.

True, in theory, SESTA doesn't get rid of Section 230 altogether. It supposedly only introduces the risk of certain types of liability for any company or person dependent on its statutory protection. But as I've noted, the hole SESTA pokes through Section 230's general protection against liability is enormous. Whether SESTA's supporters want to recognize it or not, it so substantially undermines Section 230's essential protective function as to make the statute a virtual nullity.

And it eviscerates it for everyone, corporate platforms and individual people alike – even those very same individual people whose discussion-hosting activity has been what's made platforms like Facebook so popular. While every single platform, regardless of whether it is a current member of Internet Association, an unaffiliated or smaller platform, or a platform that has yet to be invented, will be harmed by SESTA, the particular character of Facebook, as a platform hosting the platforms of individual users, means it will be hit extra hard. It suddenly becomes substantially more difficult to maintain these sorts of dynamic user communities when a key law enabling those user communities is now taken away, because in its absence it becomes significantly more risky for any individual user to continue to host this conversation on the material they post. Regardless of whether that material is political commentary, silly memes, vacation pictures, or anything else people enjoy sharing with other people, without Section 230's critical protection insulating them from liability in whatever these other people should happen to say about it, there are no comments that these users will be able to confidently allow on their posts without fear of an unexpectedly harsh consequence should they let the wrong ones remain.

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Posted on Techdirt - 6 November 2017 @ 9:37am

The Case Of Glassdoor And The Grand Jury Subpoena, And How Courts Are Messing With Online Speech In Secret

from the it-ain't-so-grand dept

In my last post, I discussed why it is so important for platforms to be able to speak about the discovery demands they receive, seeking to unmask their anonymous users. That candor is crucially important in ensuring that unmasking demands can't damage the key constitutional right to speak anonymously, without some sort of check against their abuse.

The earlier post rolled together several different types of discovery instruments (subpoenas, warrants, NSLs, etc.) because to a certain extent it doesn't matter which one is used to unmask an anonymous user. The issue raised by all of them is that if their power to unmask an anonymous user is too unfettered, then it will chill all sorts of legitimate speech. And, as noted in the last post, the ability for a platform receiving an unmasking demand to tell others it has received it is a critical check against unworthy demands seeking to unmask the speakers behind lawful speech.

The details of each type of unmasking instrument do matter, though, because each one has different interests to balance and, accordingly, different rules governing how to balance them. Unfortunately, the rules that have evolved for any particular one are not always adequately protective of the important speech interests any unmasking demand necessarily affects. As is the case for the type of unmasking demand at issue in this post: a federal grand jury subpoena.

Grand jury subpoenas are very powerful discovery instruments, and with good reason: the government needs a powerful weapon to be able to investigate serious crimes. There are also important constitutional reasons for why we equip grand juries with strong investigatory power, because if charges are to be brought against people, it's important for due process reasons that they have been brought by the grand jury, as opposed to a more arbitrary exercise of government power. Grand juries are, however, largely at the disposal of government prosecutors, and thus a grand jury subpoena essentially functions as a government unmasking demand. The ability to compel information via a grand jury subpoena is therefore not a power we can allow to exist unchecked.

Which brings us to the story of the grand jury subpoena served on Glassdoor, which Paul Levy and Ars Technica wrote about earlier this year. It's a story that raises three interrelated issues: (1) a poor balancing of the relevant interests, (2) a poor structural model that prevented a better balancing, and (3) a gag that has made it extraordinarily difficult to create a better rule governing how grand jury subpoenas should be balanced against important online speech rights.

Glassdoor is a platform focused on hosting user-provided information about employers. Much of the speech it hosts is necessarily contributed anonymously so that the speakers can avoid any fallout from their candor. This is the sort of fallout that, if they had to incur it, would discourage them from contributing information others might find valuable. The seriousness of these sorts of consequences is why the district court decision denying Glassdoor's attempts to resist the grand jury subpoena seeking to unmask their users reflects such a poor balancing of the relevant interests. Perhaps if the subpoena had been intended to unmask people the government believed were themselves guilty of the crime being investigated, the balance might have tipped more in favor of enforcing it. But the people who the subpoena was seeking to unmask were simply suspected as possibly knowing something about the crime that others were apparently committing. It is not unreasonable for the government to want to be able to talk to witnesses, but that desire to talk to them is not the only interest present here. These are people who were simply availing themselves of their right to speak anonymously, and who, if this subpoena is enforced, are going to be shocked to suddenly find the government on their doorstep wanting to talk to them.

This sort of unmasking is chilling to them and anyone else who might want to speak anonymously because it means that there's no way they ever will be able to speak should their speech happen to ever somehow relate (however tangentially) to someone else's criminal behavior. It is also inconsistent with the purported goal of fighting crime because it will prevent criminal behavior from coming to light in the first place, for few will want to offer up information if it will only tempt trouble for them at some point in the future.

This mis-balancing of interests is almost a peripheral issue in this case, however. The more significant structural concern is why such a weak balancing test was used. As discussed previously, in order to protect the ability to speak anonymously online, it is important for a platform to be able to resist demands to unmask their users in cases where the reason for the unmasking does not substantially outweigh the need to protect people's right to speak anonymously online. But the district court denied Glassdoor's attempt to resist the subpoena when it chose to apply the test from Branzburg v. Hayes, a Supreme Court case focused on the ability to resist a grand jury subpoena. Branzburg, however, has nothing to do with the Internet or Internet platforms. It is a case from the 1970s that was solely focused on whether the First Amendment gave journalists the right to resist a grand jury subpoena. Ultimately it decided that they generally had no such right, at least so long as the government was not shown to be acting in bad faith, which, while not nothing, is not a standard that is particularly protective of anonymity. It also barely even addressed the interests of the confidential sources themselves, dismissing their interest in maintaining anonymity as a mere "preference," and one the Court presumed was being sought only to shield themselves from prosecution for their own criminal culpability.

The upshot of Branzburg is that the journalist, as an intermediary for a source's information, had no right to resist a grand jury subpoena. Unfortunately, Branzburg simply can't be extended to the online world where, for better or worse, essentially all speech must be intermediated by some sort of platform or service in order to happen. The need to let the platforms resist grand jury subpoenas therefore has less to do with whether an intermediary itself has a right to resist them and everything to do with the the right of their users to speak anonymously, which, far from being a preference, is an affirmative right the Supreme Court, after Branzburg, subsequently recognized.

A better test, and one that respects the need to maintain this critical speech right, is therefore needed, which is why Glassdoor appealed the district court's ruling. Unfortunately, its appeal has raised a third issue: while there is often a lot of secrecy surrounding a grand jury investigation, in part because it makes sense to keep the subject of an investigation in the dark, preserving that level of secrecy does not necessarily require keeping absolutely everything related to the subpoena under seal. Fortunately the district court (and the DOJ, who agreed to this) recognized that some information could safely be released, particularly related to Glassdoor's challenge of the subpoena's enforcement generally, and thanks to that limited unsealing we can tell that the case involved a misapplication of Branzburg to an Internet platform.

Unfortunately the Ninth Circuit didn't agree to this limited disclosure and sealed the entirety of Glassdoor's appeal, even the parts that were already made public. The effects of this sealing included that it became impossible for potential amici to weigh in in support of Glassdoor and to argue for a better rule that would allow platforms to better protect the speech rights of their users. While Glassdoor had been ably litigating the case, the point of amicus briefs is to help the court see the full implications of a particular ruling on interests beyond those immediately before it, which is a hard thing for the party directly litigating to do itself. The reality is that Glassdoor is not the first, and will not be the last, platform to get a grand jury subpoena, but unless the rules governing platforms' ability to resist are stronger than what's afforded by Branzburg, the privacy protection speakers have depended on will continue to evaporate should their speech ever happen to capture the interest of a federal prosecutor with access to grand jury.

For all we know, of course, the Ninth Circuit might have seen its point and quashed the subpoena. Or maybe it upheld it and maybe the FBI has now unpleasantly surprised those Glassdoor users. We may never know, just as we may never know if there are other occasions where courts have used specious reasoning to allow grand jury subpoenas to strip speakers of their anonymity. Even if the Ninth Circuit indeed fixed the problems with this questionable attempt at unmasking, by doing it in secret it's missed an important opportunity to provide guidance to lower courts to help ensure that they don't allow other questionable attempts to keep happening to speakers in the future.

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Posted on Techdirt - 3 November 2017 @ 1:32pm

Some Thoughts On Gag Rules And Government Unmasking Demands

from the dissent-dies-in-the-dark dept

The news about the DOJ trying to subpoena Twitter calls to mind an another egregious example of the government trying to unmask an anonymous speaker earlier this year. Remember when the federal government tried to compel Twitter to divulge the identity of a user who had been critical of the Trump administration? This incident was troubling enough on its face: there’s no place in a free society for a government to come after a critic of it. But largely overlooked in the worthy outrage over the bald-faced attempt to punish a dissenting voice was the government’s simultaneous attempt to prevent Twitter from telling anyone that the government was demanding this information. Because Twitter refused to comply with that demand, the affected user was able to get counsel and the world was able to know how the government was abusing its authority. As the saying goes, sunlight is the best disinfectant, and by shining a light on the government's abusive behavior it was able to be stopped.

That storm may have blown over, but the general issues raised by the incident continue to affect Internet platforms – and by extension their users and their speech. A significant problem we keep having to contend with is not only what happens when the government demands information about users from platforms, but what happens when it then compels the same platforms to keep those demands a secret. These secrecy demands are often called different things and are born from separate statutory mechanisms, but they all boil down to being some form of gag over the platform’s ability to speak, with the same equally troubling implications. We've talked before about how important it is that platforms be able to protect their users' right to speak anonymously. That right is part and parcel of the First Amendment because there are many people who would not be able to speak if they were forced to reveal their identities in order to do so. Public discourse, and the benefit the public gets from it, would then suffer in the absence of their contributions. But it's one thing to say that people have the right to speak anonymously; it's another to make that right meaningful. If civil plaintiffs, or, worse, the government, can too easily force anonymous speakers to be unmasked then the right to speak anonymously will only be illusory. For it to be something speakers can depend on to enable them to speak freely there have to be effective barriers preventing that anonymity from too casually being stripped by unjust demands.

One key way to prevent illegitimate unmasking demands is to fight back against them. But no one can fight back against what they are unaware of. Platforms are thus increasingly pushing back against the gags preventing them from disclosing that they have received discovery demands as a way to protect their communities of users.

While each type of demand varies in its particulars (for instance a civil subpoena is different from a grand jury subpoena, which is different than an NSL, which is different from the 19 USC Section 1509 summons that was used against Twitter in the quest to discover the Trump critic), as well as the rationale for why the demanding party might have sought to preserve the secrecy around the demand with some sort of gag, all of these unmasking demands still ultimately challenge the durability of an online speaker's right to remain anonymous. Which is why rulings that preserve, or, worse, even strengthen, gag rules are so troubling because they make it all the more difficult, if not outright impossible, to protect legitimate speech from illegitimate unmasking demands.

And that matters. Returning to the example about the fishing expedition to unmask a critic, while it's great that in this particular case the government quickly dropped its demand on Twitter, questions remain. Was Twitter the only platform the government went after? Perhaps, but how would we know? How would we know if this was the only speech it had chosen to investigate, or the 1509 summons the only unmasking instrument it had used to try to identify the speaker? If the other platforms it demanded information from were, quite reasonably, cowed by an accompanying demand for secrecy (the sanctions for violating such an order can be serious), we might never know the answers to these questions. The government could be continuing its attacks on its apparently no-longer-anonymous critics unabated, and speakers who depended on anonymity would unknowingly be putting themselves at risk when they continued to speak.

This state of affairs is an affront to the First Amendment. The First Amendment was intended in large part to enable people to speak truth to power, but when we make it too hard for platforms to be partners in protecting that right it entrenches that power. There are a lot of ways that platforms should have the ability to be that partner, but one of them must be the basic ability to tell us when that right is under threat.

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