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  • Tearing Down Social Platforms Like Gab Won’t Stop the Violence

    Last weekend, a horrible tragedy occurred when a gunman opened fire in a Pittsburgh synagogue, killing 11 people. In the wake of this tragedy, a devastated public has been seeking to make sense of this act of mass violence. But as is common when dealing with grief, sadness often turns to anger and confusion, and there is then a sense that justice must be served, not just on the perpetrator but even on those indirectly involved.

    When an individual commits a violent act, only that person should be held directly responsible. But our country has lost its sense of personal responsibility, and when something goes wrong, the default response is to widely cast blame on anyone or anything that can conceivably be linked to the act. Following the Pittsburgh shooting, many have decided that punishing alternative social media platforms will somehow avenge the lives lost. Unfortunately, this is not the case. And by arbitrarily pointing fingers, we completely abandon the principle of personal responsibility.

    Immediately following the massacre, it was discovered that the suspected gunman had made several anti-semitic social media posts, many originating on the platform Gab. In response, PayPal sent a letter to Gab stating that it would no longer offer payment services to the network. PayPal gave no specific reason for this action aside from specifying that it had the right to terminate business relationships at its own discretion, which, as a private company, it absolutely does.

    However, PayPal later told The Verge:

    The company is diligent in performing reviews and taking account actions. When a site is explicitly allowing the perpetuation of hate, violence or discriminatory intolerance, we take immediate and decisive action.

    Shortly thereafter, Gab received word that its web hosting provider, Joyent, would also be ending their business relationship in light of the gunman’s social media presence on its site. GoDaddy has cut its ties with the platform, as well. Gab told its users that it would be working on finding alternatives, but these losses will surely cause the social networking site many problems in the coming weeks.

    Adding expropriation to injury, the payment processing company Stripe sent a letter to Gab, saying:

    While we continue our investigation, we are suspending transfers to your bank account, effective immediately. Your Stripe account will continue to be able to receive payments from your customers, but you will not receive payouts until we re-enable them.

    Again, these companies certainly have the right to cut ties, but their decision does not make a whole lot of sense. After all, Gab is not the only social media platform that has been used by murderers and other monsters of humanity. At its peak, the terrorist group ISIS frequently made use of Twitter as a means of recruiting members. Twitter has also been used by several other users who were later discovered to be murderers. However, Twitter itself was never held responsible for these users’ actions.

    In addition to Twitter, Facebook has also been utilized by many murderers, some even boasting about their kills on the popular social media site. Yet Facebook has never had to face the same negative backlash that Gab is currently having to endure. And to make matters worse, Gab is one of the few social media platforms that has committed itself to free speech even in our current climate of censorship hysteria. As Facebook and Twitter continue to ban users, we need to preserve as many alternative social media sites as possible.

    Over the last several months, both Facebook and Twitter have been deleting the accounts of users whose profiles and pages have been flagged as racist or offensive. While Facebook claims that many of the 800 accounts it banned recently were a result of spamming violations, many of the banned pages have denied these allegations. Additionally, many of the pages deleted were right-leaning groups. And given the proximity to the midterm elections, the whole thing is highly suspect.

    Now, many users fear that their accounts might also be banned for simply expressing an opinion that doesn’t align with those who control these platforms. And many have begun to abandon these popular platforms in search of alternatives that do not threaten to ban users for expressing their opinions—no matter how radical or unfavorable these opinions may be.

    Gab has been one popular haven for those fleeing traditional social media platforms as it prides itself on being “The Home of Free Speech Online.” But this mission has been threatened by PayPal and Stripe cutting off its accounts and Joyent dropping the site from its servers.

    Yes, all these entities are allowed to freely associate or disassociate with whomever they please. Nevertheless, as the ability to freely express ourselves is quickly becoming limited at almost every turn, the shunning of Gab is a chilling sign of where we are headed as a society.

    True, the gunman’s profile on the site was riddled with hateful rhetoric, but his words were his own and no one else’s. Punishing Gab would be akin to punishing a homeowner for a violent crime that occurred just outside of his home, even if he played no role in the altercation.

    It should also be noted that as soon as Gab realized the gunman had a profile on its site, it promptly turned over all relevant information to the FBI. Gab was merely protecting his right to voice his opinion, they were not protecting him from the consequences of his actions.

    Gab commented on the whole debacle, saying:

    We refuse to be defined by the media’s narratives about Gab and our community. Gab’s mission is very simple: to defend free expression and individual liberty online for all people. Social media often brings out the best and the worst of humanity.

    And if we are being honest with ourselves, by exiling the “worst” of humanity and banishing it to remote corners of the internet, we do more harm than good. First, isolating hateful people only allows their hate to fester in fringe groups where they stay isolated from new thoughts that could potentially positively alter their worldviews. Additionally, by keeping these people hidden, we miss out on vital feedback that tells us that we may not want to associate these people.

    Heinous acts of violence shake us to our core and leave us feeling vulnerable and confused. But this vulnerability should not cloud our reason. And by holding social media platforms accountable for someone else’s crime, we remove the personal responsibility that should fall on those who actually committed the murders.

    Source: Tearing Down Social Platforms Like Gab Won’t Stop the Violence – Foundation for Economic Education

  • 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