Sunday, November 12, 2017

Congress’s end run around a pillar of online free speech

FREE-SPEECH ADVOCATES—including the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Center for Democracy and Technology—are afraid that a bill currently making its way through Congress could significantly weaken existing protections for online speech.

In the United States, one of the most critical planks supporting free expression online is a section of the 1996 Communications Decency Act known as Section 230, often referred to as the “safe harbor” clause. The EFF describes it as “the most important law protecting internet speech.”

Section 230 states that “no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” In a nutshell, this clause gives any online service provider immunity from legal liability for the content that its members or users post (unless it involves either criminal activity or intellectual property).

This means that platforms like Facebook and Twitter and Amazon can’t be sued if one of their users publishes something that is libellous or offensive. But it also protects much smaller platforms and online communities from similar kinds of liability, and digital news companies and online publishers from being taken to court for the comments that readers post on articles.

The risk is that if those protections are weakened, publishers will decide it’s not worth it to host any user-generated content at all, which could significantly reduce the amount of reader interaction in the form of crowdsourced and collaborative journalism.

The bill that the EFF and others are so concerned about is called the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act or SESTA, which would amend Section 230. The bill was approved by the Senate Commerce Committee this week.

According to its main sponsor, Republican Senator Bob Portman from Ohio, the legislation will make it easier to crack down on sex trafficking, which is facilitated in some cases through online services like Backpage, a provider of adult classified-ad listings that is currently facing a potential grand jury indictment.

Most people would agree that bringing an end to sex trafficking is a noble goal—although there are those who disagree about whether SESTA will be able to do so (some experts believe it could actually expose sex trafficking victims to more harm, and make it more difficult to stop the practice by driving it underground). But in the process of reaching that goal, the proposed law could blast a large hole right through the free-speech protections of Section 230.



Paul Weber said...

If someone used a telephone for illegal purposes (threats, extortion, slander, libel, etc.) would you hold the telephone company responsible? No. So why is it different when it's a "post" on a blog, facebook, or twitter?

Stan B said...

Prior to the passage of Section 230 of the CDA, there was a heated debate about whether Comment Sections such as this one were being "published" by the service provider. If the provider moderated the discussion (with any sort of community standards or rules), there were legal arguments being made in the courts that such moderation constituted a "publishing activity," like a newspaper or magazine, which CAN be held liable for publishing false and defamatory "letters to the editors" and submitted content. The choices were becoming NO public comment section, no standards or moderation at all, or accept liability for what any yahoo wrote on your wall that slipped by your moderators.

Section 230 is a significant piece of legislation, but the unintended consequence is that any yahoo can post advertisements for illegal or contraband services and the host can't be held liable, provided they don't profit from the illegal activity or have any involvement in it. Luckily, most reputable providers and platforms have moderation (something they might not choose to have at all without Section 230), and enforce a modicum of standards.

Weakening 230 puts us back into the dark ages of uncertainty - where small platforms will have to wait for some big provider to screw up royally and fight the case about whether they are a "publisher" or not all the way to the Supreme Court before deciding how to act. It won't be a good time for those with unpopular opinions...

Bird of Paradise said...

Free speech means noting to the left just like with the ISIS radicals and liberals