Senators Hoeven, Heitkamp Back Serious Threat to Internet Freedom

(Jesse Trelstad/Grand Forks Herald)

Senators John Hoeven and Heidi Heitkamp listen to Drayton resident and business owner Pete Anderson voice concerns of flood insurance costs being a burden on the elderly and business owners during Thursday's public form, February 23, 2017 in Drayton, N.D.

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (the common name for Title V of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 which, in turn, was an amendment of the Communications Act of 1934) is one of the most important pieces of public policy for the internet.

Here’s what it says: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

What this means is that people who provide interactive computer services – that includes everything from sports discussion forums to blogs to Facebook – has a degree of immunity from liability for illegal content posted by users.

This is important. It would be legally prohibitive to run even a political blog with a comments section, let alone an enterprise the size of Twitter, without this immunity.

Which is why Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act – introduced by Republican Senator Rob Portman of Ohio and co-sponsored by North Dakota Senators John Hoeven and Heidi Heitkamp – is a threat to the internet.

I write about it in my print column today.

Politicians and other government officials, frustrated by the failure of a case aiming to hold’s operators liable for sex trafficking advertising, are seeking to destroy Section 230 immunity.

While stopping sex trafficking is a noble goal, removing this immunity is the wrong way to go about achieving it. From my column:

To be clear, people and companies who provide services on the internet absolutely should be liable for whatever illegal content or activities they’re aware of.

If Google, for example, knows that one of their services is being used to facilitate human trafficking or any other type of illegal activity and allows it to continue happening while taking no steps to stop it then the company should be liable.

But should Facebook face criminal or civil liability because a prostitute arranges a transaction through the social networking site’s messaging feature?

Should Google face repercussions because someone used Gmail to solicit sex?

Proponents of this legislation will no doubt argue that law enforcement officials, and trial lawyers, are hardly interested in holding Facebook or Google responsible for what individuals get up to on their various services, but why should we have to rely on their forbearance? Why should we create even the possibility of this enormous, and grossly unfair, legal liability?

Web service operators who knowingly host or facilitate illegal content should be, and are under current law, liable for it. But outside of those circumstances, the liability for illegal activity ought to lay solely with those perpetrating it.