Internet Censorship Bill Threatens Free Speech

This is another horrible proposed law by the Republican-controlled Congress. Ironically enough, it poses severe risks to small businesses, which is another insight into how indentured the Republican party has become to big business.

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.

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.

There is a page to email the representatives here. The Capitol Switchboard numbers are also 202-224-3121, 888-355-3588, and 888-818-6641.