Disaster for free speech
There’s a new bill in Congress that would threaten your right to free expression online. If that weren’t enough, it could also put small Internet businesses in danger of catastrophic litigation.
Don’t let its name fool you: the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA, S. 1693) wouldn’t help punish sex traffickers. What the bill would do is expose any person, organization, platform, or business that hosts third-party content on the Internet to the risk of overwhelming criminal and civil liability if sex traffickers use their services. For small Internet businesses, that could be fatal: with the possibility of devastating litigation costs hanging over their heads, we think that many entrepreneurs and investors will be deterred from building new businesses online.
Make no mistake: sex trafficking is a real, horrible problem. This bill is not the way to address it. Lawmakers should think twice before passing a disastrous law and endangering free expression and innovation.
While SESTA’s purpose may be only to fight sex trafficking, it brings a deeper threat to many types of free expression online. The bill would create an exception to Section 230 for enforcement of any state criminal law targeting sex trafficking activities. It would also add an exemption for federal civil law relating to sex trafficking (as it stands now, Section 230 already doesn’t apply to federal criminal law, including laws against trafficking and receiving money from child sex trafficking).
Let’s unpack that. Under SESTA, states would be able to enact laws that censor the Internet in broad ways. As long as those laws claim to target sex traffickers, states could argue that they’re exempt from Section 230 protections. As Eric Goldman points out in his excellent analysis of SESTA, Congress should demand an inventory of existing state laws that would fall into this new loophole before even thinking about opening it.
There’s a long history of states passing extremely broad censorship laws in the name of combatting trafficking. Just this year, legislators in numerous states introduced the Human Trafficking Prevention Act, a bill that has nothing to do with human trafficking and everything to do with censoring sexual expression. Imagine all of the ways in which state lawmakers would attempt to take advantage of SESTA to curb online speech in their states. If they can convince a judge that the state law targets sex trafficking, then SESTA applies. That would create a ton of uncertainty for Internet intermediaries.
It gets worse.
Section 230 contains a “Good Samaritan” provision that protects intermediaries when they take measures to filter or block certain types of content. This section ensures that intermediaries are not punished for mistakes they might make in removing or failing to remove user-generated content. In other words, a service blocking some content does not make it liable for what it didn’t block.
SESTA would compromise the Good Samaritan provision by imposing federal criminal liability on anyone who merely knows that sex trafficking advertisements are on their platform. Platforms would thus be discouraged from reviewing the content posted by their users, cancelling out the incentive to review, filter and remove provided by the Good Samaritan provision.
That puts companies that run online content platforms in a difficult bind. Any attempt to enforce community conduct guidelines could be used as evidence that the company knew of trafficking taking place on its service. (As we mentioned above, federal criminal law already applies to intermediaries.) The two choices facing platforms would seem to be to put extremely restrictive measures in place compromising their users’ free speech and privacy, or to do nothing at all.