Sep 012018
 

This post originally appeared on Techdirt on 4/4/18.

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. Continue reading »

Sep 012018
 

This post originally appeared on Techdirt on 3/23/18.

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. Continue reading »

Sep 012018
 

This post originally appeared on Techdirt on 3/22/18.

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.

Sep 012018
 

This post originally appeared on Techdirt 3/16/18.

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.

Sep 012018
 

This post originally appeared on Techdirt on 2/27/18.

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. Continue reading »

Sep 012018
 

This post originally appeared on Techdirt on 2/26/18.

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.

Sep 012018
 

This post originally appeared on Techdirt on 1/24/18.

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.

Sep 012018
 

This post originally appeared on Techdirt on 1/22/18.

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. Continue reading »

Nov 192017
 

Originally posted on Techdirt November 15, 2017.

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. Continue reading »

Nov 192017
 

Cross-posted from Techdirt November 14, 2017.

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.