Just in time for Christmas, it seems Google is up to its Grinchy tricks in the House of Representatives, allegedly the big gun behind an effort to undermine the anti-child-sex-trafficking bill FOSTA, which is the House version of the Senate’s SESTA. Because these bills propose to amend the liability shield in Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (1996), the major tech firms, along with organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, have worked to clobber the proposals, lobbying Members of Congress and promoting anti-SESTA campaigns to the public.
Shortly after representatives of Facebook, Google, and Twitter endured some uncomfortable grilling on the subject of Russian disinformation campaigns, the Internet Association endorsed SESTA in early November. But according to a new editorial in The Hill by Mary Mazzio, it looks like Big Tech lobbyists are orchestrating a bill swap in the House, proposing an approach that avoids amending Section 230. Mazzio is the writer/director of the trafficking documentary film I Am Jane Doe, which apparently inspired legislative action on this issue in the first place. She states in her article…
“This full replacement of FOSTA was done under cover of darkness, quickly and quietly, with no input on the specific language from the NGO community, victims or survivors. The bill, which now amends the Mann Act, fails to address the Section 230 problem identified in the 1st Circuit, and worse, strips away civil remedies from survivors as well as states attorneys general. The language also appears to permanently foreclose all private rights of action which victims currently have under the federal trafficking statute.”
Her reference to the 1st Circuit is to the case Doe v. Backpage in which the court read the Section 230 statute broadly enough to hold that Backpage’s owners were entirely shielded from civil litigation pursued by several trafficking victims who blamed the site for facilitating their victimization by sex-traffickers. In response to a still-developing body of evidence implicating Backpage’s active role in the trafficking of minors, Congress has sought to at least clarify that the “safe harbor” provision of Section 230 is not meant to shield online services from liability for this type of conduct.
The internet industry, with substantial help from the EFF, has tried to characterize these bills as harmful to free speech and innovation (again) and have promoted a limited body of scholarship claiming that the bills will do more harm than good for victims. I have written several responses to the anti-SESTA campaign, but Ms. Mazzio sums it up in her description of the alleged new proposal now sitting in the House Judiciary Committee. “The net result is a new bill which genuflects to the altar of business practices and profitability where children and trafficking victims are collateral damage.”
Collateral damage is exactly right. It’s a concept that musicians and other artists know all too well—not that their losses are comparable to what trafficking victims endure, only that the policy agenda is very familiar. But this is the price Google & Friends say must be paid in the interest of “internet freedom,” which is actually a euphemism for their liability shields.
Big Tech’s absolutism on Section 230 is this industry’s version of the NRA saying that “spree killings are the price we pay for freedom.” In fact, if we put it that bluntly—children being sold to be systematically raped is the price we pay for internet freedom—it seems just a little defeatist and lacking in moral authority, least of all in the year when Americans have declared they’re turning the tables on sexual harassment. It seems to me if the Democrats in Congress felt an urgency to shed both Conyers and Franken in the current climate, that it is probably not too much to ask that they give serious attention to the FOSTA proposal, keeping only the victims the foreground, and let Google’s interests be damned.
It’s hard to say that these bills will categorically help trafficking victims; they are a limited remedy at best, given the hideous nature of the crime. But I’d like to believe we can all agree that the financial interests of the world’s largest company are less important than an effort to mitigate such egregious harm being done to kids. It is rather astounding to see that netizens (whoever the hell they are) are so self-righteous about the Net Neutrality thing that they’ll justify racist attacks and death threats aimed at Ajit Pai. But some of these same good people are willing to allow children to be collateral damage just because Google & Co. say “free speech.” If that’s really who we are, somebody show me how to actually break the internet because I’m all for it.
Photo by alexkich