WASHINGTON D.C. — Today, TechFreedom and the R Street institute led a diverse coalition of public interest groups in expressing concerns over the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act of 2017. If enacted, the bill would expand criminal liability for websites regarding illegal sex trafficking on their sites, and amend Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 to allow state prosecutors and civil plaintiffs to take action against website operators.
As the coalition letter explains,
Section 230 … works by providing limited immunity for online platforms that give users an opportunity to disseminate their material. Notably, this immunity does not extend to federal criminal laws. Moreover, Section 230 allows online platforms to engage in Good Samaritan blocking and filtering of user content without risking civil liability for something that someone else said or wrote. Without these protections, online platforms as small as a personal blog or as big as Wikipedia would face a flood of frivolous lawsuits and potentially devastating filtering costs. It is no exaggeration to say that Section 230 is the law that made today’s Internet possible.
The letter concludes:
The Senate should exercise the utmost caution in any re-consideration of Section 230, especially outside of the normal committee process. Upending the balance struck in 1996 without a careful consideration of the effects of doing so could have devastating consequences for the Internet, perversely undermine efforts to combat sex trafficking, and serve as a first step toward further amendments that serve less-laudable purposes.
“If the goal is to curb sex trafficking — and it should be — this bill will do the opposite,” said Berin Szóka, President of TechFreedom. “Congress created Section 230’s safe harbor to incentivize online platforms to remove harmful content. Eroding that safe harbor will, perversely, make platform operators less willing to engage in Good Samaritan policing of their sites and make it harder to catch perpetrators of online sex trafficking. Yet at the same time, it would hurt law-abiding users pushing platform operators to overfilter content, or even turn off user communication functionality.”
“Congress struck a careful balance in Section 230,” continued Szóka. “The law doesn’t bar criminal prosecution of platform operators; it merely makes federal law enforcement responsible for policing the Internet. And rightly so, given the uniquely interstate nature of the Internet. Federal law already heavily punishes sex trafficking, as well as conspiracies to engage in it or inducement of it, and provides restitution for victims. Indeed, DOJ appears to be on the verge of indicting Backpage’s founders. Section 230 doesn’t bar civil suits, either, against websites that take an active role in ‘developing’ content, even ‘in part.’ Such lawsuits are playing out now in the states. It would be premature for Congress to assume that Section 230’s Safe Harbor is too broad.”
“Section 230 unleashed trillions in wealth creation and two decades of non-stop innovation,” concluded Szóka. “Web 2.0’s ‘user-generated content’ revolution would not have happened but for Congress’s foresight in protecting platforms from excessive liability. The services we take for granted today, like Facebook, YouTube, and any website with a comments section, either wouldn’t exist or would look very different in a world without Section 230. Yes, absolutely, online platforms have a moral obligation to work with law enforcement, but weakening Section 230 will only reduce cooperation between law enforcement and the tech industry against the scourge of sexual exploitation.”
We can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org. See our other work on net neutrality, including:
- Tech Policy Podcast #124: Suing a website
- Our infographic and explainer on CDA Section 230 and immunity for online intermediaries
- Our statement on New York’s home-sharing ban, which violates Section 230
TechFreedom is a non-profit, non-partisan technology policy think tank. We work to chart a path forward for policymakers towards a bright future where technology enhances freedom, and freedom enhances technology.