A looming battle over corporate social responsibility on the internet has taken an interesting turn. Oracle has backed a proposed US law that will penalize the operators of sex-trafficking websites.
The California database giant says it will support the bipartisan Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, aka SESTA, arguing that it is needed and tightly focussed. You may be astonished that America needs to, in 2017, introduce such a law at all, and that in this day and age its courts protect sex traffickers. But they do, very strongly so, if the pimps are operating on the web. And for that they have some of the wealthiest companies on the planet to thank.
Specifically, traffickers are safeguarded by section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which is an impenetrable force field for internet services. Originally intended to protect infant websites from vexatious litigation, critics say it has become a shield for criminality.
It all came to a head when child trafficking victims sued classified ads website Backpage for allegedly facilitating underage prostitution, and lost in court due to section 230. Meanwhile, Google and its fellow tech goliaths oppose section 230 reforms on free speech grounds – with the "do no evil" ads giant lobbying against any overhaul.
The sponsors of SESTA argue their law bill targets the Communications Decency Act's forcefield with laser precision, appending the wording "to ensure vigorous enforcement of federal criminal and civil law relating to sex trafficking."
Meanwhile, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children says the "majority" of the 10,000-plus cases referred to it every year are Backpage.com adult classified ads. One such example was highlighted in Congress by Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) last month:
Let me tell you about Kubiiki Pride. Kubiiki Pride gave powerful testimony before the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations in the Senate. Ms. Pride said her daughter had been missing for nine months when she found her picture on the top website for commercial sex activity – backpage.com. She was actually glad to have found her daughter. So she called backpage.com and said: That is my daughter. She has been missing for nine months. She is 14 years old. Thank you for taking down the ad.
Backpage.com said to her: Did you pay for the ad?
She said: No. It is my 14-year-old daughter.
They said: We are not going to take down the ad. You didn't pay for it.
Imagine if this were your daughter. Imagine how you would feel.
Yet SESTA has raised the ire of Silicon Valley, which is spreading the word thanks to activist groups it sponsors that proclaim the sky is falling in relation to moves to curtail web firms.
The EFF, which one year received half of its total funding from Google, calls SESTA "censorship" and argues that it is "a bill that has nothing to do with human trafficking and everything to do with censoring sexual expression." You can judge for yourselves by examining the text yourself – it won't take you long.
Oracle calls the EFF's warnings of innovation being chilled absurd. In a letter this week to the bill's cosponsors Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Senator Portman, Oracle senior VP Kenneth Glueck wrote: "Your legislation does not, as suggested by the bill's opponents, usher the end of the internet. If enacted, it will establish some measure of accountability for those that cynically sell advertising but are unprepared to help curtail sex trafficking."
"Frankly we are stunned you must even have this debate," he added, pointing out that with the benefit of hindsight, Congress would have overwhelmingly amended section 230 with similar wording in 1996.
What's a sensible measure of making sure wealthy corporations behave with a modicum of social responsibility? Obviously, it lies somewhere on the scale between a website being seen to be guilty of anything that a third party does through the site, and the site being innocent of anything that takes place.
This requires a theory of secondary liability: how much "red flag" knowledge did any given operator have, and what actions did it take to facilitate behavior it knew was criminal?
That shouldn't be rocket science. For now, though, SESTA (or SESTA-like) tweaks to section 230 can spare Silicon Valley's blushes. And an internet that protects flagrant child abusers isn't an internet worth "saving". ®