44. Unintended Consequences – 47 U.S.C. Section 230

August 17, 2017 — In a way, this is just a depressing movie review and you may want to skip it if you are in low spirits.   But it does raise a question about what congress isn’t doing while it is engaged in the endless political squabbling the world has been discussing.

[Ed. ” … In 2018, Section 230 was amended by the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (FOSTA-SESTA) to require the removal of material violating federal and state sex trafficking laws. Protections from Section 230 have come under more recent scrutiny on issues related to hate speech and ideological biases in relation to the power technology companies can hold on political discussions. “- Wikipedia  ]

For me, the greater shame we all bear for allowing ourselves to be consumed by the continuous battle of spiteful lies that American politics has become, is that we have been distracted by tricksters from the more important life-and-death issues that confront us every single day.

Last night, though I have come to avoid unpleasant entertainment, I thought I might be up to watching a documentary called, I am Jane Doe, on Netflix.  Well, I was, and I wasn’t. What unfolded in the film, described with a journalist’s reportorial style, was one of those life-and-death matters involving children, that, though known by all, has been entirely neglected by congress and the federal courts for several years.

In 1996, in an effort to restrict what it considered to be indecent speech on the internet, congress passed a law with what turned out to be the ironically Orwellian title of, the Communications Decency Act (CDA). The internet community sued, and the Supreme Court struck down those provisions which infringed free speech, leaving in place only a section —- 230 that said, “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider” (47 U.S.C. § 230).”

Next in a tragic chain of events, a newspaper, the Village Voice, mounted an on-line classified ad section called Backpage dot com, which quickly became a major site for advertising “escort services” and ever more explicit offers of prostitution. Voice publishers were protected by the law, CDA 230, that exculpated them from responsibility for “third-party content”.

At some point more than half a dozen years ago, child sex traffickers, who had perfected the art of finding runaways or incipient runaways in their early teens, mostly 13 to 15, and of enticing them, raping them repeatedly, abusing and intimidating them and then prostituting them and commandeering their income, began to gravitate towards Backpage’s completely open advertising policy. Soon Backpage became the main marketing outlet for pimps with children to sell.

Mothers searching for their lost children began to find pictures of them in their underwear, spread-legged or downward dogging, on Backpage, with their quarter or half-hourly rates specified.

Backpage, and when it was discovered to be the owner, the Village Voice, hiding behind CDA 230, stonewalled the mothers, and some recovered children, who at first only wanted their pictures removed from the site.

Law suits against Backpage and on behalf of the trafficked children were initiated in several states over the past six years, and were struck down one after the other by federal courts on the basis that federal law, CDA 230, exculpated the publisher, the single victory occurring in the Washington State Supreme court.

When public pressure in the form of picketing and boycotts got too hot for Village Voice, it sold Backpage to a couple of “alternative newspaper” entrepreneurs from Phoenix.

Backpage’s market share in child sex trafficking grew to heavily dominate the niche and it went international. Backpage’s lawyers and spokesperson continued to maintain that they were doing everything possible to screen out the child sex ads, while their opponents in court argued that their “guidelines” merely instructed the advertisers how to use language that would not get them banned from the site. By coaching and advising the child sex traffickers in that way, opponents maintain, Backpage became a co-conspirator in the child sex trafficking industry, in the development of which they have played a major role.

As depicted in the documentary, the federal appeals courts have, sometimes with an astonishing lack of understanding of what was actually happening on Backpage despite being explicitly informed by plaintiffs, continued to maintain that it was the intent of congress to protect this “speech” with CDA 230.

Recently the U.S. Senate held hearings on the matter and subpoenaed the CEO of Backpage, who failed to show up. Arrested for contempt of congress, the federal judge again freed him citing CDA 230.

Backpage’s income is above $175 million a year and they hire the most expensive lawyers. When the Cook County Sheriff took them on directly, they sued him and won.

It seems to me as a writer and one who has read a good deal of statutory language, that by re-writing and replacing CDA 230 it would be fairly easy to clarify that the intent of congress is to protect freedom of the internet as a communications conduit, without protecting those who participate actively in child sex trafficking and are the de facto marketing arm of the industry. Why has congress not done that in the several years that this case has been widely known, and during which time the lives of thousands of children have been forever damaged or lost?

Is this just part of the general deadlock resulting from the expansion of political campaigning to fill 100% the time previously allotted to governance?

It has always been arguable that congress doesn’t actually want to solve the problems of immigration control and reform, nor of tax reform or the loss of American jobs shipped overseas to satisfy corporate greed, but in the case of child sex trafficking about which nothing has been done for nearly ten years, that conclusion, if mysterious, is inescapable. This inactivity of congress may partly be explained by the fact that special interest groups pay “our” representatives more money in fungible “campaign contributions” than we do in salaries.

Even if one does not object to prostitution as a cottage industry, nor even adult pornography, what we are talking about is the literal, actual slavery of children, and further abuse of the worst possible kind during that enslavement.

I don’t think I ever before this moment, and I had three years of high school Latin, fully understood the implication of, “Nero fiddled while Rome burned.”