• Tag Archives 1st Amendment
  • NSA Internet Surveillance Under Section 702 Violates the First Amendment

    The First Amendment is too often overlooked in discussions of the National Security Agency’s vast surveillance authorities. But as Congress considers whether to reauthorize Section 702 of FISA this winter, we must remember that it’s not just our Fourth Amendment rights to privacy that are in the crosshairs, but also our First Amendment rights. These rights to anonymously speak, associate, access information, and engage in political activism are the bedrock of our democracy, and they’re endangered by the NSA’s pervasive surveillance.

    The NSA uses Section 702 to justify ongoing programs to siphon off copies of vast amounts of our communications directly from the Internet backbone as well as require system-wide searches across the information collected by major Internet companies like Google, Facebook, and Apple.

    So how does the First Amendment come to apply to mass surveillance? To understand this, we need to begin with a little history of the civil rights movement.

    As part of the backlash to the Supreme Court’s ruling striking down segregation in schools, the Attorney General of Alabama, John Patterson, brought a lawsuit against a leading civil rights organization, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The lawsuit alleged that the NAACP violated a state law requiring “foreign corporations” to file certain paperwork and get approval before practicing business in Alabama. The NAACP is a nonprofit membership organization; it didn’t file the paperwork because it believed it was exempt. While the NAACP fought the suit, the state issued a subpoena demanding detailed records from the NAACP, including membership lists and bank records. The NAACP refused to surrender its membership lists, fearing retaliatory consequences for its members. Because of this refusal, the court fined the NAACP $10,000, which after five days was raised to $100,000. The NAACP continued to fight the order for two years until the Supreme Court took up the issue, never surrendering its membership lists.

    Ultimately the NAACP was vindicated. The Supreme Court recognized that the First Amendment protected the associational privacy interests of NAACP members. It directly recognized that freely associating for advocacy or other purposes is a fundamental right. It noted that state invasions of privacy could infringe on that right: “It is beyond debate that freedom to engage in association for the advancement of beliefs and ideas is an inseparable aspect of the “liberty” assured by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which embraces freedom of speech… Of course, it is immaterial whether the beliefs sought to be advanced by association pertain to political, economic, religious or cultural matters, and state action which may have the effect of curtailing the freedom to associate is subject to the closest scrutiny.”

    The Supreme Court found that the “Inviolability of privacy in group association may in many circumstances be indispensable to preservation of freedom of association, particularly where a group espouses dissident beliefs.”

    In short, we all have the right to engage in associate with one another and to join and communicate with political and religious groups free from government surveillance.

    As our society has moved online, our associations have become digital in nature. Signing up for a membership or learning about an advocacy group often happens over a website or app. Members of modern political groups coordinate donations, activities, and information over social networks, email, and websites. When the NSA—either by itself or by working with corporate “partners”—collects the digital communications and browsing history of countless individuals, it’s also obtaining records of innocent Americans visiting activism websites, becoming members of advocacy groups, and coordinating social movements. EFF also raised this argument in our case against the mass telephone records collection by the NSA (substantially narrowed in 2015First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles v NSA.

    The surveillance of our communications systems, and thereby the surveillance of our communications, infringes on the very rights of private association upheld by the Supreme Court in 1958.

    So while the Fourth Amendment concerns about 702 and mass surveillance are important, they are not the only problem created by the law. And as Alex Abdo, an attorney at the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, argues that when it comes to confronting government surveillance, we shouldn’t expect the Fourth Amendment alone to protect our First Amendment interests. He recently wrote that “The Fourth Amendment, unlike the First, is blind to the cumulative effects of invasions of privacy that are small in isolation but substantial in combination.”

    Those cumulative effects are especially felt when it comes to the right to publish and access information freely. While the government may be forbidden from censoring online speakers and readers, the cumulative impact of pervasive digital surveillance has a chilling effect on online communities. The specter of government surveillance quells engagement in online forums, social networks, and blogs that discuss controversial, political, or unpopular positions. Knowing that the government is keeping a digital dossier of comments we leave online and articles we digitally share creates an environment in which speakers hesitate to engage in online political advocacy.

    Readers also hesitate to visit websites that may be seen as out of favor with the government, whether that’s Al Jazeera or CNN or EFF’s own site, knowing that their visit may be recorded in a government database for years to come.

    The NSA’s digital surveillance of countless law-abiding Americans also indirectly affects another key First Amendment right: our right to assembly. Today’s modern protest movements are often organized and fueled by social media and digital communication, where activists coordinate across a wide range of physical locations. The NSA’s pervasive digital surveillance challenges our values as a society that respects and safeguards the right to plan and participate in protests and other political activity, rights which are themselves baked into the First Amendment.

    The pervasive digital surveillance programs of the NSA chip away at the First Amendment protections that underpin our democracy. As Congress considers whether to reauthorize or reform Section 702 surveillance in the coming weeks, we urge them to remember that their choice will not just impact the privacy of Americans, it will have a profound impact on freedom of speech, association, and assembly protected by the First Amendment and ultimately, upon our democracy itself.

    Contact Congress today to speak out against NSA surveillance.

    Source: NSA Internet Surveillance Under Section 702 Violates the First Amendment | Electronic Frontier Foundation



  • Internet Censorship Bill Would Spell Disaster for Speech and Innovation

    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 (PDF) 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.

    Section 230: The Law that Built the Modern Internet

    SESTA would weaken 47 U.S.C. § 230, as enacted by the Communications Decency Act (commonly known as “CDA 230” or simply “Section 230”), one of the most important laws protecting free expression online.

    You might remember the fight over the Communications Decency Act of 1996 (CDA), a law designed to put harsh restrictions on free speech over the Internet. The bill passed despite overwhelming opposition from Internet users, but with EFF’s help, the bill’s censorship provisions were gutted by the Supreme Court in 1997.

    One key piece of the bill that remained was Section 230. Section 230 deals with intermediaries—individuals, companies, and organizations that provide a platform for others to share speech and content over the Internet. Section 230 says that for purposes of enforcing certain laws affecting speech online, an intermediary cannot be held legally responsible for any content created by others. The law thus protects intermediaries against a range of laws that might otherwise be used to hold them liable for what others say and do on their platforms.

    Section 230 laid the groundwork for the explosion in U.S. Internet business that’s taken place over the past two decades. Think of how many websites or services you use host third-party content in some way—social media sites, photo and video-sharing apps, newspaper comment sections, and even community mailing lists. All of those providers rely on Section 230. Without Section 230, these businesses might have to review every bit of content a user wanted to publish to make sure that the content would not be illegal or create a risk of civil liability. It’s easy to see how such measures would stifle completely lawful speech.

    If SESTA becomes law, it will place that very burden on intermediaries. Although large intermediaries may have the resources to take on this monumental task, small startups don’t. Internet startups—a major growth engine in today’s economy—would become much more dangerous investments. Web platforms run by nonprofit and community groups, which serve as invaluable outlets for free expression and knowledge sharing, would be equally at risk.

    Giving States a Censorship Pass

    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.

    Two Bad Choices for Online Platforms

    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.

    Weakening Safe Harbors Chills Innovation

    When considering a policy regulating Internet businesses, it’s always good to ask yourself whether it would bar new players from competing with established ones. Placing overly burdensome requirements on startups has the effect of reinforcing the dominance of incumbent companies.

    Indeed, one of the benefits of safe harbors is that they allow intermediaries to enter the market with very limited resources. Without Section 230 (and its corollary in the world of copyright, Section 512 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act), the explosion in social media sites and apps would not have happened—or at least the space would look very different than it does today. Facebook, Snapchat, Airbnb, and countless other popular online services began as tiny two- or three-person companies. Without the protections in Section 230, a single lawsuit over the actions of one of its users could have destroyed one of those companies in its early stages. Compromising Section 230 would be catastrophic for high-growth startups.
    One company in particular has been central to the discussion around SESTA, the controversial classified ads site Backpage. But as Mike Masnick points out in Techdirt, the Department of Justice already has the authority to prosecute Backpage if it breaks federal criminal law. And besides, Backpage has shut down its “adult services” section and those users have moved on to other platforms. What’s more, a federal grand jury is now considering indicting Backpage under current criminal law. It would be a mistake for Congress to enact a law that would burden every intermediary, not only bad actors.

    Tell Congress: Save Section 230

    It’s time to act. The Senate bill has 24 sponsors already, nearly a quarter of the Senate. We’re afraid that its supporters are seeking to rush it through quickly so that they can claim it as a rare bipartisan victory during this year of Congressional gridlock.

    There’s been a similar bill in the House of Representatives (H.R. 1865) since April. The House bill is even more frightening than SESTA: it defines the state law exemption to Section 230 even more broadly than SESTA does, and it creates a new federal crime specifically designed to prosecute intermediaries.

    Everyone wants to combat human trafficking. If Congress doesn’t hear from us in the next day or two, they’ll make the mistake of thinking of this dangerous bill as an easy, uncontroversial win.

    Twenty years ago, the Internet came together against a fundamental threat to free speech online. We won, and in the process, we got one of the most important protections for speech and innovation on the Internet. It’s time to come together again. Let’s tell Congress not to make a short-sighted political decision that would spell disaster for the Internet.

    Source: Internet Censorship Bill Would Spell Disaster for Speech and Innovation | Electronic Frontier Foundation