Intermediary Deputization & Section 230

A few states have passed Internet regulations because the Trump FCC, citing a 20 year US policy of leaving the Internet “unfettered by Federal or State regulation,” decided to reverse the Obama FCC’s 2015 decision to regulate the Internet with telephone laws.

Those state laws regulating Internet traffic management practices–which supporters call “net neutrality”–are unlikely to survive lawsuits because the Internet and Internet services are clearly interstate communications and FCC authority dominates. (The California bill also likely violates federal law concerning E-Rate-funded Internet access.) 

However, litigation can take years. In the meantime ISP operators will find they face fewer regulatory headaches if they do exactly what net neutrality supporters believe the laws prohibit: block Internet content. Net neutrality laws in the US don’t apply to ISPs that “edit the Internet.”

The problem for net neutrality supporters is that Internet service providers, like cable TV providers, are protected by the First Amendment. In fact, Internet regulations with a nexus to content are subject to “strict scrutiny,” which typically means regulations are struck down. Even leading net neutrality proponents, like the ACLU and EFF, endorse the view that ISP curation is expressive activity protected by First Amendment.

As I’ve pointed out, these First Amendment concerns were raised during the 2016 litigation and compelled the Obama FCC to clarify that its 2015 “net neutrality” Order allows ISPs to block content. As a pro-net neutrality journalist recently wrote in TechCrunch about the 2015 rules, 

[A] tiny ISP in Texas called Alamo . . . wanted to offer a “family-friendly” edited subset of the internet to its customers.

Funnily enough, this is permitted! And by publicly stating that it has no intention of providing access to “substantially all Internet endpoints,” Alamo would exempt itself from the net neutrality rules! Yes, you read that correctly — an ISP can opt out of the rules by changing its business model. They are . . . essentially voluntary.

The author wrote this to ridicule Judge Kavanaugh, but the joke is clearly not on Kavanuagh.

In fact, under the 2015 Order, filtered Internet service was less regulated than conventional Internet service. Note that the rules were “essentially voluntary”–ISPs could opt out of regulation by filtering content. The perverse incentive of this regulatory asymmetry, whereby the FCC would regulate conventional broadband heavily but not regulate filtered Internet at all, was cited by the Trump FCC as a reason to eliminate the 2015 rules. 

State net neutrality laws basically copy and paste from the 2015 FCC regulations and will have the same problem: Any ISP that forthrightly blocks content it doesn’t wish to transmit–like adult content–and edits the Internet is unregulated.

This looks bad for net neutrality proponents leading the charge, so they often respond that the Internet regulations cover the “functional equivalent” of conventional (heavily regulated) Internet access. Therefore, the story goes, regulators can stop an ISP from filtering because an edited Internet is the functional equivalent of an unedited Internet.

Curiously, the Obama FCC didn’t make this argument in court. The reason the Obama FCC didn’t endorse this “functional equivalent” response is obvious. Let’s play this out: An ISP markets and offers a discounted “clean Internet” package because it knows that many consumers would appreciate it. To bring the ISP back into the regulated category, regulators sue, drag the ISP operators into court, and tell judges that state law compels the operator to transmit adult content.

This argument would receive a chilly reception in court. More likely is that state regulators, in order to preserve some authority to regulate the Internet, will simply concede that filtered Internet drops out of regulation, like the Obama FCC did.

As one telecom scholar wrote in a Harvard Law publication years ago, “net neutrality” is dead in the US unless there’s a legal revolution in the courts. Section 230 of the Telecom Act encourages ISPs to filter content and the First Amendment protects ISP curation of the Internet. State law can’t change that. The open Internet has been a net positive for society. However, state net neutrality laws may have the unintended effect of encouraging ISPs to filter. This is not news if you follow the debate closely, but rank-and-file net neutrality advocates have no idea. The top fear of leading net neutrality advocates is not ISP filtering, it’s the prospect that the Internet–the most powerful media distributor in history–will escape the regulatory state.

Lawmakers frequently hear impressive-sounding stats about net neutrality like “83% of voters support keeping FCC’s net neutrality rules.” This 83% number (and similar “75% of Republicans support the rules”) is based on a survey from the Program for Public Consultation released in December 2017, right before the FCC voted to repeal the 2015 Internet regulations.

These numbers should be treated with skepticism. This survey generates these high approval numbers by asking about net neutrality “rules” found nowhere in the 2015 Open Internet Order. The released survey does not ask about the substance of the Order, like the Title II classification, government price controls online, or the FCC’s newly-created authority to approve of and disapprove of new Internet services.

Here’s how the survey frames the issue:

Under the current regulations, ISPs are required to:   

provide customers access to all websites on the internet.   

provide equal access to all websites without giving any websites faster or slower download speeds.  

The survey then essentially asks the participant if they favor these “regulations.” The nearly 400-page Order is long and complex and I’m guessing the survey creators lacked expertise in this area because this is a serious misinterpretation of the Order. This framing is how net neutrality advocates discuss the issue, but the Obama FCC’s interpretations of the 2015 Order look nothing like these survey questions. Exaggeration and misinformation is common when discussing net neutrality and unfortunately these pollsters contributed to it. (The Washington Post Fact Checker column recently assigned “Three Pinocchios” to similar net neutrality advocate claims.)

Let’s break down these rules ostensibly found in the 2015 Order.

“ISPs are required to provide customers access to all websites on the internet”

This is wrong. The Obama FCC was quite clear in the 2015 Order and during litigation that ISPs are free to filter the Internet and block websites. From the oral arguments:

FCC lawyer: “If [ISPs] want to curate the Internet…that would drop them out of the definition of Broadband Internet Access Service.”
Judge Williams: “They have that option under the Order?”
FCC lawyer: “Absolutely, your Honor. …If they filter the Internet and don’t provide access to all or substantially all endpoints, then…the rules don’t apply to them.”

As a result, the judges who upheld the Order said, “The Order…specifies that an ISP remains ‘free to offer ‘edited’ services’ without becoming subject to the rule’s requirements.”

Further, in the 1996 Telecom Act, Congress gave Internet access providers legal protection in order to encourage them to block lewd and “objectionable content.” Today, many ISPs offer family-friendly Internet access that blocks, say, pornographic and violent content. An FCC Order cannot and did not rewrite the Telecom Act and cannot require “access to all websites on the internet.”

“ISPs are required to provide equal access to all websites without giving any websites faster or slower download speeds”

Again, wrong. There is no “equal access to all websites” mandate (see above). Further, the 2015 Order allows ISPs to prioritize certain Internet traffic because preventing prioritization online would break Internet services.

This myth–that net neutrality rules require ISPs to be dumb pipes, treating all bits the same–has been circulated for years but is derided by networks experts. MIT computer scientist and early Internet developer David Clark colorfully dismissed this idea as “happy little bunny rabbit dreams.” He pointed out that prioritization has been built into Internet protocols for years and “[t]he network is not neutral and never has been.” 

Other experts, such as tech entrepreneur and investor Mark Cuban and President Obama’s former chief technology officer Aneesh Chopra, have observed that the need for Internet “fast lanes” as Internet services grow more diverse. Further, the nature of interconnection agreements and content delivery networks mean that some websites pay for and receive better service than others.

This is not to say the Order is toothless. It authorizes government price controls and invents a vague “general conduct standard” that gives the agency broad authority to reject, favor, and restrict new Internet services. The survey, however, declined to ask members of the public about the substance of the 2015 rules and instead asked about support for net neutrality slogans that have only a tenuous relationship with the actual rules.

“Net neutrality” has always been about giving the FCC, the US media regulator, vast authority to regulate the Internet. In doing so, the 2015 Order rejects the 20-year policy of the United States, codified in law, that the Internet and Internet services should be “unfettered by Federal or State regulation.” The US tech and telecom sector thrived before 2015 and the 2017 repeal of the 2015 rules will reinstate, fortunately, that light-touch regulatory regime.

The recently enacted Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act (SESTA) has many problems including that it doesn’t achieve its stated purpose of stopping sex trafficking. It contains a retroactivity clause that appears facially unconstitutional, but this provision would likely be severable by courts if used as the sole basis of a legal challenge. Perhaps more concerning are the potential First Amendment violations of the law.

These concerns go far beyond the rights of websites as speakers, but to the individual users’ content generation. Promoting sex trafficking is already a crime and a lawful restraint on speech. Websites, however, have acted broadly and quickly due to concerns of their new liability under the law and as a result lawful speech has also been stifled.

Given the controversial nature of the law it seems likely that a legal challenge is forthcoming. Here are three ideas about what a First Amendment challenge to the law might look like.

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Last Friday, law enforcement agencies shutdown Backpage.com. The website has become infamous for its role in sex trafficking, particularly related to underage victims, and its shutdown is rightly being applaud by many as a significant win for preventing sex trafficking online. This shutdown shows, however, that prosecutors had the tools necessary to go after bad actors prior to the passage of the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) last month. Unfortunately, this is not the first time the government has pushed for regulation of technology knowing it already had the tools and information needed to build a case against bad actors.

The version of SESTA passed by Congress last month included a number of poorly thought through components including an ex post facto application and poorly articulated definitions, but it passed both houses of Congress with little opposition. In fact, because the law was seen as a must pass and linked to sex trafficking, the Senate even overwhelming rejected an amendment to provide additional funding for prosecuting such crimes. Even without being signed into law, SESTA has already resulted in Reddit and Craigslist removing communities from their platforms within days of its passage. What this most recent event shows is the government already had the tools to go after the bad actors like Backpage, but failed to use them as Congress debated and passed a law that chipped away at the protection for the rest of the Internet and gave the government even broader powers.

This is not the first time that the government has encouraged through either its action or inaction damaging regulation of disruptive technology while knowing that it had tools at its disposal that could achieve the desired results without the need for an additional regulatory burden. In 2016, the government argued following the San Bernadino shootings that it need more access to encrypted devices like the iPhone when Apple refused to comply with a writ compelling it to unlock the shooters’ phones. The Senate responded to the controversy by proposing a bill that would require business like Apple to assist authorities in gaining access to encrypted devices. Thankfully, because the FBI was able to gain the information needed without Apple through a third party vendor, such calls largely diminished and the legislation never went anywhere.  Now, a recent Office of the Inspector General report has revealed the FBI “testified inaccurately or made false statements” regarding its ability to gain data from the encrypted iPhone.

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SESTA passed the Senate last week after having previously passed the House. President Trump is expected to sign it into law despite the opposition to this version of the bill from the Department of Justice. As I have previously written about, there are a great deal of concerns about how the bill may actually make it harder to address online sex trafficking and more generally impact innovation on the Internet.

The reality is that we are looking at a post-SESTA world without the full protection of Section 230 and that reality will likely end up far from the best case scenario, but hopefully not fully at the worst. Intermediaries, however, do not have the luxury to wait around and see how the law actually plays out, especially given its retroactive provision. As a result, Reddit has already deleted a variety of sub-reddits and Craigslist has closed its entire personals section. One can only imagine the difficult decisions facing the creators of dating apps or messaging services.

So what can we expect to happen now…

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While the Net Neutrality debate has been in the foreground, Congress has been quietly moving forward legislation that risks fundamentally modifying the liability protection for Internet intermediaries like Facebook, Google, and PayPal, and forever changing the Internet. The proposed legislation has good intentions of stopping sex trafficking, but in an effort to stop a few bad actors the current overly broad version of the bill risks not only stopping the next Internet innovation, but also failing to achieve even this laudable goal.

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Internet regulation advocates lost their fight at the FCC, which voted in December 2017 to rescind the 2015 Open Internet Order. Regulation advocates have now taken their “net neutrality” regulations to the states.

Some state officials–via procurement contracts, executive order, or legislation–are attempting to monitor and regulate traffic management techniques and Internet service provider business models in the name of net neutrality. No one, apparently, told these officials that government-mandated net neutrality principles are dead in the US.

As the litigation over the 2015 rules showed, our national laissez faire policy towards the Internet and our First Amendment guts any attempt to enforce net neutrality. Recall that the 1996 amendments to the Communications Act announce a clear national policy about the Internet: Continue reading →

The house version of the Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act (SESTA), called the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA), has undergone significant changes that appear to enable it to both truly address the scourge of online sex trafficking and maintain important internet liability protection that encourages a free and open internet. On Tuesday, this amended version passed the House Judiciary Committee. Like most legislation, this latest draft isn’t perfect. But it has made significant steps towards maintaining freedom online while addressing the misdeeds of a few.

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As I have previously written about, a bill currently up for debate in Congress runs the risk of gutting critical liability protections for internet intermediaries. Earlier today the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act passed out of committee with an amendment attempted to remedy some of the most damaging changes to Section 230 in the original act. While this amendment has gained support from some industry groups, it does not fully address the concerns regarding changes to intermediary liability under Section 230. While the amended version shows increased awareness of the far reaching consequences of the act, it does not fully address issues that could have a chilling effect on speech on the internet and risk stifling future internet innovation.

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[originally published on Plaintext on June 21, 2017.]

This summer, we celebrate the 20th anniversary of two developments that gave us the modern Internet as we know it. One was a court case that guaranteed online speech would flow freely, without government prior restraints or censorship threats. The other was an official White House framework for digital markets that ensured the free movement of goods and services online.

The result of these two vital policy decisions was an unprecedented explosion of speech freedoms and commercial opportunities that we continue to enjoy the benefits of twenty years later.

While it is easy to take all this for granted today, it is worth remembering that, in the long arc of human history, no technology or medium has more rapidly expanded the range of human liberties — both speech and commercial liberties — than the Internet and digital technologies. But things could have turned out much differently if not for the crucially important policy choices the United States made for the Internet two decades ago. Continue reading →