When the law fails

Is it possible to discuss the internet as if it was an experiment? Can we look at some or all of it or are we to believe that, for example, when the Communications Decency Act 1996 (CDA) was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Clinton that everyone involved had a perfect, or even a very good, understanding of what was likely to happen?

I ask because I have just watched the movie “I am Jane Doe” on Netflix. This is about Backpage, an advertising web site that had been instrumental in facilitating the pimping and sex trafficking of an unknown number of children within the USA. Yet even though there was clear evidence of the site helping disguise the true nature of the ads they were very profitably publishing s.230 of the CDA provided an impregnable legal shield.

Backpage appears finally to have ended that aspect of their operations but it looks as if this was largely because of political pressure with no thanks at all being due to the law. The law stepped in to find a way to protect the wealthy owners of Backpage. It couldn’t find a way to bring relief to children. Shame on the law.

It is very hard for me to believe the 1996 legislators (or the First Amendment legislators for that matter) could have foreseen and intended to make it easier for children to be raped 20 times a day, as was the case with one of the victims who appeared in the film. On the contrary. If the 1996 legislators had had even the faintest inkling that their good intentions could be twisted or perverted in this way they would almost certainly have gone to considerable lengths to expand the number of exceptions or qualifications.

We have to be able to do better than this. Yet bodies like the Electronic Frontier Foundation argue

Any changes to Section 230 itself, to make it easier to impose liability on companies for user-generated content, would be devastating to the web as we know it—as a thriving online metropolis of free speech and innovation.

And there we have it. If we try to make it easier to protect children jackboots will soon be marching down Main Street.

I think I can say without reservation or hesitation that the courts can be trusted to distinguish between free speech and innovation and child sex trafficking but s.230 puts up a roadblock.

The Foundation goes on to say

Section 230 “is not some clever loophole” but rather “a conscious policy decision by Congress to protect individuals and companies who would otherwise be vulnerable targets to litigants who want to silence speech to which they object.”

There is a one-word answer to that: baloney. There is no right of any kind to promote or use loopholes of whatever sort to sell children into sex slavery. Wringing your hands, shrugging your shoulders and saying how much you regret that this happens as a result of s.230  or the First Amendment is pitifully inhuman. It must be within the bounds of possibility to devise a form of words that protects free speech, innovation, and children.

About John Carr

John Carr is one of the world's leading authorities on children's and young people's use of digital technologies. He is Senior Technical Adviser to Bangkok-based global NGO ECPAT International, Technical Adviser to the European NGO Alliance for Child Safety Online, which is administered by Save the Children Italy and an Advisory Council Member of Beyond Borders (Canada). Amongst other things John is or has been an Adviser to the United Nations, ITU, the European Union, the Council of Europe and European Union Agency for Network and Information Security and is a former Board Member of the UK Council for Child Internet Safety. He is Secretary of the UK's Children's Charities' Coalition on Internet Safety. John has advised many of the world's largest internet companies on online child safety. In June, 2012, John was appointed a Visiting Senior Fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science. More: http://johncarrcv.blogspot.com
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