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.

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 »