Principles of net neutrality are less likely to die by the force of telcos and ISPs throttling your Internet use as many fear after the recent FCC rollback of Obama-era net neutrality rules. Instead, a greater threat to net neutrality looms from new laws that already garner major public support. Washington has traded Internet platform’s rights in exchange for history’s oldest existential threat to freedom – security.
Hysteria rose from every corner of the Internet after Trump-appointed FCC Chairman Ajit Pai promised to kill net neutrality. In 2015, Obama’s vision for net neutrality consisted of reshuffling Internet services to Title II from Title I under the Communications Act of 1934. It was a flip easily flopped with a mere wave of a pen by a new administration. What was needed were real 21st century laws to protect Internet freedom, not the repurposing of policy created to break up the Bell telephone company in 1934, Obama’s policy was incomplete, and now we’re paying the price.
Net Neutrality Under Attack
To date, one of the strongest foundations of today’s free and open Internet is found within Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996. Section 230 prevents websites or online platforms from being held liable for the content of its users. It’s responsible for allowing open-forums and social media to flourish and remains a cornerstone policy of e-commerce and free speech on the Internet.
President Donald Trump just signed the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) into law with overwhelming support across both parties in Washington. The new law sounds good at first glance. Why wouldn’t we support a law that makes it easier to prosecute websites used by sex traffickers?
“Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety” – Ben Franklin
The primary target of the new law was BackPage.com, a website known to have been used for sex trafficking. But the law has already sent a chill across the Internet as many platforms have shut down portions of their business because policing it would introduce added costs they cannot afford.
FOSTA has been controversial since its inception. Sex workers have already said it makes their occupation even more risky, pushing them back into the streets and potential danger without an opportunity to vet potential customers before getting into their car.
The intention of Section 230 was to free online platforms from liability for content posted by users. Much the way a library is not held liable for the information in one of its books. Section 230 has been widely praised since its inception as a founding principle that would help the Internet to grow and become the modern marketplace of ideas and commerce that it is today. FOSTA slid through the Congress with a vote of 97-2, with only Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR), one of Section 230’s authors, and libertarian Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) voting against it.
FOSTA Kills Section 230
It’s understandably difficult not to support a bill that can give additional prosecutorial powers to stop sex trafficking’s worst case scenarios, online platforms being used for trafficking children has been publicized as the primary motivation for increased regulation on Internet platforms. But sex trafficking is already illegal, if investigators believed they’ve found a child sex trafficking ring online, there are numerous prosecutorial measures that can be taken against them to put perpetrators behind bars.
The hole FOSTA pokes through Section 230 may be just the beginning as regulators look for increased control over our communications online. Increased responsibility of platforms for its user’s content will only hurt smaller startups the most, while solidifying the dominance of the Internet’s biggest players today that can easily afford the extra cost of self-policing. The signing of FOSTA into law strikes at the very heart of the net neutrality debate, but it appears to have little opposition, even among net neutrality supporters.
Section 230’s latest compromise might be only the beginning of a tide that changes the Internet as we know it. According to a recent Harris X poll, 84-percent of US citizens believe tech companies should be legally responsible for their platform’s content, while 83-percent believe existing there should be more regulations on Internet content overall.
Real laws are changing the Internet right under the noses of the most ardent net neutrality supporters, who are apparently willing to trade their freedoms for a false sense of security.