Google Supports Child Slavery with Anti-SESTA Campaign?

That would be an incendiary claim, wouldn’t it?

But let’s be honest. If a different industry (say the motion picture industry) were opposing the anti-trafficking bill called SESTA, then the EFF, Fight for the Future, PublicKnowledge, Techdirt, and about 30 other Google-backed organizations would surely not hesitate to righteously declare from their laptops that “Hollywood Loves Child Sex Slaves.”  There would be a flood of editorials, graphics, memes, tweets, rumors, and maybe even some skywriting, all hammering away at the industry they love to hate.  No analysis of the bill. No nuance. It’s what they did with SOPA, and it worked.

Conversely, we have not seen a coordinated campaign to portray the internet industry and its syndicate of sycophants as a bunch of rich, white, ivory-tower, dilettantes indifferent to the plight of child sex-slaves.  Perhaps this is because it would be in bad taste to do so; perhaps it’s because no other industry finances quite so vast a network of opinion-makers as Google does all by itself; perhaps it’s because the people who believe that reasonable law-enforcement can and must apply in cyberspace are reasonable people still committed to arguing the merits of a policy proposal rather than jumping into the mud-fight that passes for political activism on the internet.  Perhaps calling someone a supporter of child slavery is a bridge too far.  But like I say, if the situation were reversed, they’d do it in heartbeat.

I’ve tried not to go there.  In the posts I’ve written about Backpage or the Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act (SESTA), I’ve stated that I don’t believe the folks at EFF or its sister organizations are so morally corrupt that they simply do not care about the victims of human trafficking.  But it is admittedly hard to give them the benefit of that doubt under the circumstances.  Because the bottom line, as I read it, is that these groups are just completely full of crap about the threats SESTA poses to internet users; and it’s hard to remain polite in response to their rolling out the standard hyperbole when the subject is so grave.

To my reading, SESTA proposes a very modest and narrow change to Section 230 of the CDA. It adds language pertaining to sex-trafficking that would be constructed in the statute as equal to the existing language about hosting child pornography online. It does not change the core mechanism of Section 230, namely the underlying rationale or function of the liability shield. The proposed change to the law is short and simple. Anyone can read it for themselves. Basically, if you’ve been using the internet and have thus far managed to avoid being accused of hosting child pornography (because you don’t), that’s about how vulnerable you would be to an accusation of supporting sex-trafficking after passage of SESTA.

The major internet interests are probably less concerned about possible litigation from victims of trafficking than they are with insisting that the CDA should remain calcified in its form as ratified in 1996.  Assuming this is true, the concern on their part would be that a change in the CDA creates a precedent for other changes in cyber-law, for instance in the DMCA, that might limit the manner in which many of the major platforms have profited from infringement since their inception.  But tough noogies. These are the wealthiest and most powerful corporations on the planet. They can behave like citizens.

Surely, we should be able to set aside the underlying debate over the DMCA just long enough to show some solidarity on the far more serious matter of trafficking minors in the sex trade. I’d like to believe that we all agree this is a criminal enterprise depraved enough, and deserving of enough empathy for its victims, that even Google and its network of activist carny barkers would mute their scare-mongering “censorship” rhetoric for a change.  But apparently, there is no criminal conduct deserving of such deference.

Can SESTA impose new liabilities on sites the scale of YouTube? Probably.  But so what?  Google has the the money and the resources to figure it out. Meanwhile, children are being kidnapped, abused, and raped for profit; and if Congress cannot even take this tiny step toward mitigating the role the internet plays in fostering that crime, then shame on us.  Or as a colleague of mine said to me yesterday, “Are we really saying that filming and distributing images of child abuse is illegal, but committing the act itself is okay?” We cannot possibly have our heads that far up Google’s ass, can we?

The Campaign for Accountability states in a recent post, “At least 34 groups that receive Google funding have opposed the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA), according to research from the Google Transparency Project.”  These include many of the usual suspects like EFF, R Street Institute, and Mike Masnick’s Copia Institute, but also lists the ACLU and PEN America, whose voices on such matters tend to be more sober.  As stated in other posts, funding source alone is not an indictment of a policy position; but Google’s now widely-reported scope of influence through academia and activist groups, combined with messaging that sounds more like PR than debate, paints a picture that is hard to take at face value. For instance, the following paragraph appears to be the meat of the letter sent to the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation by the ACLU:

“Online providers cannot and should not suffer criminal liability merely for facilitating the speech of others even if elements those communications are distasteful or even unlawful.  To do so would discourage online hosts from making responsible efforts to police their sites, and that in turn would make it more difficult to expose those actually engaged in criminal behavior.  Just as Internet commerce and speech would not have grown exponentially without the protections of section 230, so penalizing service providers now will discourage online entrepreneurs from moving the miracle of modern Internet communications into its next magical phase.” [Emphasis added]

So, cutting through the fog of language alluding to miracles and magic, the sentence in bold is the alleged problem with SESTA.  But as noted above, it is very hard to see how the proposed amendment to the statute substantially alters the liability implications from the status quo for the vast majority of internet users and entrepreneurs.  And because every complaint I have read so far, like the ACLU letter, spends more energy praising the broad virtues of Section 230 than making a clear case for why SESTA would be hazardous, I will continue to believe there is no there there.  Or to put it another way, to be potentially liable under SESTA, it seems your site would basically have to be Backpage.  And as there is one Backpage out of about a billion websites, I think these organizations are protesting a bit much.

© 2017, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.

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2 comments

  • Y’know, I’m struck by a major bit of cognitive dissonance when considering the internet when viewed through the lens of legislation, as opposed to actual technical considerations.

    Being the resident geek at my workplace, I am at least partially responsible for security, which means I’m trying to stay abreast of potential threats. My impression, based on a number of incidents in the recent past, is that the internet is best approached on a “zero trust” basis. In other words: it’s not a question of “will something bad happen”, but a question of “when will something bad happen”. In the wake of the CCleaner update hack, I’ve straight-out made a case to the CEO that we need to have a recovery model in place, because even the best security practices will not prevent a malware infection (installing software updates as they appear is a best practice – and exactly the vector employed in CCleaner).

    One would expect, therefore, that network professionals are fully cognizant of the fact that the internet is one giant ball of criminal threats to the workings of any enterprise/organisation and that there are very definite limits to what we can do to stave these off – short of going completely offline. I’m guessing if the full extent of the dangers were made known to the general populace in understandable terms, we’d be seeing a major panic.

    On the other hand, the “people factor” (legislation, social conventions, etc.) surrounding the internet seems completely oblivious to the fact that the internet at large is what we’d otherwise call “the bad part of town”. The legal climate is a libertarian’s wet dream and everyone seems to be purposefully avoiding coming to terms with the fact that it is fostering criminal mobs, working with impunity (copyright issues are just the tip of the iceberg, as Backpage demonstrates, with much of the low-profile stuff focusing around things like identity theft, credential spoofing and plain old depriving people of their hard-earned cash).

    The society-wide denial of the dangers posed by the internet is palpable.

    • Cognitive dissonance is a good way of thinking about it. this is what I’ve been thinking about. For any other topic “how can you sleep at night?” would be dramatic. For this topic, I can’t stop thinking about how the staffers at EFF sleep knowing, or intentionally not knowing, the absolute horror these young people and adults have gone through or continue to go through. We complain about art being treated like a commodity. While actual humans are being bought/sold, drugged, raped, and yes, sometimes sadly killed. I’ve listened to 911 calls of girls trapped in hotel rooms, forced to have sexy with 5, 10, 20 men a day. It makes you wonder if EFF has as well, with their extremely insensitive campaign that paints this issue as any other. But it is not just another issue. It is human life. And EFF is made up of adults, who owe a responsibility to the children still trapped. At least to admit they are trapped.

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