Nov 062017
 

This post is the second in a series that ran on Techdirt about the harm to online speech through unfettered discovery on platforms that they are then prevented from talking about.

In my last post, I discussed why it is so important for platforms to be able to speak about the discovery demands they receive, seeking to unmask their anonymous users. That candor is crucially important in ensuring that unmasking demands can’t damage the key constitutional right to speak anonymously, without some sort of check against their abuse.

The earlier post rolled together several different types of discovery instruments (subpoenas, warrants, NSLs, etc.) because to a certain extent it doesn’t matter which one is used to unmask an anonymous user. The issue raised by all of them is that if their power to unmask an anonymous user is too unfettered, then it will chill all sorts of legitimate speech. And, as noted in the last post, the ability for a platform receiving an unmasking demand to tell others it has received it is a critical check against unworthy demands seeking to unmask the speakers behind lawful speech.

The details of each type of unmasking instrument do matter, though, because each one has different interests to balance and, accordingly, different rules governing how to balance them. Unfortunately, the rules that have evolved for any particular one are not always adequately protective of the important speech interests any unmasking demand necessarily affects. As is the case for the type of unmasking demand at issue in this post: a federal grand jury subpoena.

Grand jury subpoenas are very powerful discovery instruments, and with good reason: the government needs a powerful weapon to be able to investigate serious crimes. There are also important constitutional reasons for why we equip grand juries with strong investigatory power, because if charges are to be brought against people, it’s important for due process reasons that they have been brought by the grand jury, as opposed to a more arbitrary exercise of government power. Grand juries are, however, largely at the disposal of government prosecutors, and thus a grand jury subpoena essentially functions as a government unmasking demand. The ability to compel information via a grand jury subpoena is therefore not a power we can allow to exist unchecked.

Which brings us to the story of the grand jury subpoena served on Glassdoor, which Paul Levy and Ars Technica wrote about earlier this year. It’s a story that raises three interrelated issues: (1) a poor balancing of the relevant interests, (2) a poor structural model that prevented a better balancing, and (3) a gag that has made it extraordinarily difficult to create a better rule governing how grand jury subpoenas should be balanced against important online speech rights. Continue reading »

Nov 042017
 

The following post originally appeared on Techdirt on 11/3/17.

The news about the DOJ trying to subpoena Twitter calls to mind an another egregious example of the government trying to unmask an anonymous speaker earlier this year. Remember when the federal government tried to compel Twitter to divulge the identity of a user who had been critical of the Trump administration? This incident was troubling enough on its face: there’s no place in a free society for a government to come after a critic of it. But largely overlooked in the worthy outrage over the bald-faced attempt to punish a dissenting voice was the government’s simultaneous attempt to prevent Twitter from telling anyone that the government was demanding this information. Because Twitter refused to comply with that demand, the affected user was able to get counsel and the world was able to know how the government was abusing its authority. As the saying goes, sunlight is the best disinfectant, and by shining a light on the government’s abusive behavior it was able to be stopped.

That storm may have blown over, but the general issues raised by the incident continue to affect Internet platforms – and by extension their users and their speech. A significant problem we keep having to contend with is not only what happens when the government demands information about users from platforms, but what happens when it then compels the same platforms to keep those demands a secret. These secrecy demands are often called different things and are born from separate statutory mechanisms, but they all boil down to being some form of gag over the platform’s ability to speak, with the same equally troubling implications. We’ve talked before about how important it is that platforms be able to protect their users’ right to speak anonymously. That right is part and parcel of the First Amendment because there are many people who would not be able to speak if they were forced to reveal their identities in order to do so. Public discourse, and the benefit the public gets from it, would then suffer in the absence of their contributions. But it’s one thing to say that people have the right to speak anonymously; it’s another to make that right meaningful. If civil plaintiffs, or, worse, the government, can too easily force anonymous speakers to be unmasked then the right to speak anonymously will only be illusory. For it to be something speakers can depend on to enable them to speak freely there have to be effective barriers preventing that anonymity from too casually being stripped by unjust demands. Continue reading »

Nov 042017
 

The following post first appeared on Techdirt on 10/25/17.

The last two posts I wrote about SESTA discussed how, if it passes, it will result in collateral damage to the important speech interests Section 230 is intended to protect. This post discusses how it will also result in collateral damage to the important interests that SESTA itself is intended to protect: those of vulnerable sex workers.

Concerns about how SESTA would affect them are not new: several anti-trafficking advocacy groups and experts have already spoken out about how SESTA, far from ameliorating the risk of sexual exploitation, will only exacerbate the risk of it in no small part because it disables one of the best tools for fighting it: the Internet platforms themselves:

[Using the vilified Backpage as an example, in as much as] Backpage acts as a channel for traffickers, it also acts as a point of connection between victims and law enforcement, family, good samaritans, and NGOs. Countless news reports and court documents bear out this connection. A quick perusal of news stories shows that last month, a mother found and recovered her daughter thanks to information in an ad on Backpagea brother found his sister the same way; and a family alerted police to a missing girl on Backpage, leading to her recovery. As I have written elsewhere, NGOs routinely comb the website to find victims. Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times famously “pulled out [his] laptop, opened up Backpage and quickly found seminude advertisements for [a victim], who turned out to be in a hotel room with an armed pimp,” all from the victim’s family’s living room. He emailed the link to law enforcement, which staged a raid and recovered the victim.

And now there is yet more data confirming what these experts have been saying: when there have been platforms available to host content for erotic services, it has decreased the risk of harm to sex workers. Continue reading »

Oct 212017
 

The following is the second in a pair of posts on Techdirt about how SESTA’s attempt to carve-out “trafficking” from Section 230’s platform protection threatens legitimate online speech having nothing to do with actual harm to trafficking victims.

Think we’re unduly worried about how “trafficking” charges will get used to punish legitimate online speech? We’re not.

A few weeks ago a Mississippi mom posted an obviously joking tweet offering to sell her three-year old for $12.

I tweeted a funny conversation I had with him about using the potty, followed by an equally-as-funny offer to my followers: 3-year-old for sale. $12 or best offer.

The next thing she knew, Mississippi authorities decided to investigate her for child trafficking.

The saga began when a caseworker and supervisor from Child Protection Services dropped by my office with a Lafayette County sheriff’s deputy. You know, a typical Monday afternoon.

They told me an anonymous male tipster called Mississippi’s child abuse hotline days earlier to report me for attempting to sell my 3-year-old son, citing a history of mental illness that probably drove me to do it.

Beyond notifying me of the charges, they said I’d have to take my son out of school so they could see him and talk to him that day, presumably protocol to ensure children aren’t in immediate danger. So I went to his preschool, pulled my son out of a deep sleep during naptime, and did everything in my power not to cry in front of him on the drive back to my office.

All of this for a joke tweet.

This story is bad enough on its own. As it stands now, actions by the Mississippi authorities will chill other Mississippi parents from blowing off steam with facetious remarks on social media. But at least the chilling harm is contained within Mississippi’s borders. If SESTA passes, that chill will spread throughout the country. Continue reading »

Oct 212017
 

The following is the first of a pair of posts on SESTA highlighting how carving out an exception to Section 230’s platform protection for sex trafficking rips a huge hole in the critical protection for online speech that Section 230 in its current form provides.

First, if you are someone who likes stepped-up ICE immigration enforcement and does not like “sanctuary cities,” you might cheer the implications of this post, but it isn’t otherwise directed at you. It is directed at the center of the political ven diagram of people who both feel the opposite about these immigration policies, and yet who are also championing SESTA. Because this news from Oakland raises the specter of a horrific implication for online speech championing immigrant rights if SESTA passes: the criminal prosecution of the platforms which host that discussion.

Much of the discussion surrounding SESTA is based on some truly horrific tales of sex abuse, crimes that more obviously fall under what the human trafficking statutes are clearly intended to address. But with news that ICE is engaging in a very broad reading of the type of behavior the human trafficking laws might cover and prosecuting anyone that happens to help an immigrant, it’s clear that the type of speech that SESTA will carve out from Section 230’s protection will go far beyond the situations the bill originally contemplated. Continue reading »

Oct 212017
 

The following was posted on Techdirt 10/16/17.

In the wake of the news about Harvey Weinstein’s apparently serial abuse of women, and the news that several of his victims were unable to tell anyone about it due to a non-disclosure agreement, the New York legislature is considering a bill to prevent such NDAs from being enforceable in New York state. According to the Buzzfeed article the bill as currently proposed still allows a settlement agreement to demand that the recipient of a settlement not disclose how much they settled for, but it can’t put the recipient of a settlement in jeopardy of needing to compensate their abuser if they choose to talk about what happened to them.

It’s not the first time a state has imposed limits on the things that people can contract for. California, for example, has a law that generally makes non-compete agreements invalid. Even Congress has now passed a law banning contracts that limit consumers’ ability to complain about merchants. Although, as we learn in law school, there are some Constitutional disputes about how unfettered the freedom to contract should be in the United States, there has also always been the notion that some contractual demands are inherently “void as against public policy.” In other words, go ahead and write whatever contractual clause you want, but they aren’t all going to be enforceable against the people you want to force to comply with them.

Like with the federal Consumer Review Fairness Act mentioned above, the proposed New York bill recognizes that there is a harm to the public interest when people cannot speak freely. When bad things happen, people need to know about them if they are to protect themselves. And it definitely isn’t consistent with the public interest if the people doing the bad things can stop people from knowing that they’ve been doing them. These NDAs have essentially had the effect of letting bad actors pay money for the ability to continue the bad acts, and this proposed law is intended to take away that power.

As with any law the devil will be in the details (for instance, this proposed bill appears to apply only to non-disclosure clauses in the employment context, not more broadly), and it isn’t clear whether this one, as written, might cause some unintended consequences. For instance, there might theoretically be the concern that without a gag clause in a settlement agreement it might be harder for victims to reach agreements that would compensate them for their injury. But as long as victims of other people’s bad acts can be silenced as a condition of being compensated for those bad acts, and that silence enables there to be yet more victims, then there are already some unfortunate consequences for a law to try to address.

Jul 122017
 

The following was also posted on Techdirt.

It’s always hard to write about the policy implications of tragedies – the last thing their victims need is the politicization of what they suffered. At the same time, it’s important to learn what lessons we can from these events in order to avoid future ones. Earlier Mike wrote about the chilling effects on Grenfell residents’ ability to express their concerns about the safety of the building – chilling effects that may have been deadly – because they lived in a jurisdiction that allowed critical speech to be easily threatened. The policy concern I want to focus on now is how copyright law also interferes with safety and accountability both in the US and elsewhere.

I’m thinking in particular about the litigation Carl Malamud has found himself faced with because he dared to post legally-enforceable standards on his website as a resource for people who wanted ready access to the law that governed them. (Disclosure: I helped file amicus briefs supporting his defense in this litigation.) A lot of the discussion about the litigation has focused on the need for people to know the details of the law that governs them: while ignorance of the law is no excuse, as a practical matter people need a way to actually know what the law is if they are going to be expected to comply with it. Locking it away in a few distant libraries or behind paywalls is not an effective way of disseminating that knowledge.

But there is another reason why the general public needs to have access to this knowledge. Not just because it governs them, but because others’ compliance with it obviously affects them. Think for instance about the tenants in these buildings, or any buildings anywhere: how can they be equipped to know if the buildings they live in meet applicable safety standards if they never can see what those standards are? They instead are forced to trust that those with privileged access to that knowledge will have acted on it accordingly. But as the Grenfell tragedy has shown, that trust may be misplaced. “Trust, but verify,” it has been famously said. But without access to the knowledge necessary to verify that everything has been done properly, no one can make sure that it has. That makes the people who depend on this compliance vulnerable. And as long as copyright law is what prevents them from knowing if there has been compliance, then it is copyright law that makes them so.  Continue reading »

Jul 062017
 

The following was originally posted on Techdirt.

Sunday morning I made the mistake of checking Twitter first thing upon waking up. As if just a quick check of Twitter would ever be possible during this administration… It definitely wasn’t this past weekend, because waiting for me in my Twitter stream was Trump’s tweet of the meme he found on Reddit showing him physically beating the crap out of a personified CNN.

But that’s not what waylaid me. What gave me pause were all the people demanding it be reported to Twitter for violating its terms of service. The fact that so many people thought that was a good idea worries me, because the expectation that when bad speech happens someone will make it go away is not a healthy one. My concern inspired a tweet storm, which has now been turned into this post. Continue reading »

Jun 132017
 

Cross-posted on Techdirt.

The Copia Institute filed another amicus brief this week, this time in Fields v. Twitter. Fields v. Twitter is one of a flurry of cases being brought against Internet platforms alleging that they are liable for the harms caused by the terrorists using their sites. The facts in these cases are invariably awful: often people have been brutally killed and their loved ones are seeking redress for their loss. There is a natural, and perfectly reasonable, temptation to give them some sort of remedy from someone, but as we argued in our brief, that someone cannot be an internet platform.

There are several reasons for this, including some that have nothing to do with Section 230. For instance, even if Section 230 did not exist and platforms could be liable for the harms resulting from their users’ use of their services, for them to be liable there would have to be a clear connection between the use of the platform and the harm. Otherwise, based on the general rules of tort law, there could be no liability. In this particular case, for instance, there is a fairly weak connection between ISIS members using Twitter and the specific terrorist act that killed the plaintiffs’ family members.

But we left that point to Twitter to ably argue. Our brief focused exclusively on the fact that Section 230 should prevent a court from ever even reaching the tort law analysis. With Section 230, a platform should never find itself having to defend against liability for harm that may have resulted from how people used it. Our concern is that in several recent cases with their own terrible facts, the Ninth Circuit in particular has found itself willing to make exceptions to that rule. As much as we were supporting Twitter in this case, trying to help ensure the Ninth Circuit does not overturn the very good District Court decision that had correctly applied Section 230 to dismiss the case, we also had an eye to the long view of reversing this trend. Continue reading »

May 262017
 

The following was cross-posted on Techdirt.

We often talk about how protecting online speech requires protecting platforms, like with Section 230 immunity and the safe harbors of the DMCA. But these statutory shields are not the only way law needs to protect platforms in order to make sure the speech they carry is also protected.

Earlier this month, I helped Techdirt’s think tank arm, the Copia Institute, file an amicus brief in support of Yelp in a case called Montagna v. Nunis. Like many platforms, Yelp lets people post content anonymously. Often people are only willing to speak when they can do so without revealing who they are (note how many people participate in the comments here without revealing their real names), which is why the right to speak anonymously has been found to be part and parcel of the First Amendment right of free speech . It’s also why sites like Yelp let users post anonymously, because often that’s the only way they will feel comfortable posting reviews candid enough to be useful to those who depend on sites like Yelp to help them make informed decisions.

But as we also see, people who don’t like the things said about them often try to attack their critics, and one way they do this is by trying to strip these speakers of their anonymity. True, sometimes online speech can cross the line and actually be defamatory, in which case being able to discover the identity of the speaker is important. This case in no way prevents legitimately aggrieved plaintiffs from using subpoenas to discover the identity of those whose unlawful speech has injured them to sue them for relief. Unfortunately, however, it is not just people with legitimate claims who are sending subpoenas; in many instances they are being sent by people objecting to speech that is perfectly legal, and that’s a problem. Unmasking the speakers behind protected speech not only violates their First Amendment rights to speak anonymously but it also chills the speech the First Amendment is designed to foster generally by making the critical anonymity protection that plenty of legal speech depends on suddenly illusory.

There is a lot that can and should be done to close off this vector of attack on free speech. One important measure is to make sure platforms are able to resist the subpoenas they get demanding they turn over whatever identifying information they have. There are practical reasons why they can’t always fight them — for instance, like DMCA takedown notices, they may simply get too many — but it is generally in their interest to try to resist illegitimate subpoenas targeting the protected speech posted anonymously on their platforms so that their users will not be scared away from speaking on their sites.

But when Yelp tried to resist the subpoena connected with this case, the court refused to let them stand in to defend the user’s speech interest. Worse, it sanctioned(!) Yelp for even trying, thus making platforms’ efforts to stand up for their users even more risky and expensive than they already are.

So Yelp appealed, and we filed an amicus brief supporting their effort. Fortunately, earlier this year Glassdoor won an important California State appellate ruling that validated attempts by platforms to quash subpoenas on behalf of their users. That decision discussed why the First Amendment and California State Constitution required platforms to have this ability to quash subpoenas targeting protected speech, and hopefully this particular appeals court will agree with its sister court and make clear that platforms are allowed to fight off subpoenas like this. As we pointed out in our brief, both state and federal law and policy require online speech to be protected, and preventing platforms from resisting subpoenas is out of step with those stated policy goals and constitutional requirements.