The Battle for the Internet

So, this happened:

Russia has taken another major step toward restricting its once freewheeling Internet, as President Vladimir V. Putin quietly signed a new law requiring popular online voices to register with the government, a measure that lawyers, Internet pioneers and political activists said Tuesday would give the government a much wider ability to track who said what online.

Mr. Putin’s action on Monday, just weeks after he disparaged the Internet as “a special C.I.A. project,” borrowed a page from the restrictive Internet playbooks of many governments around the world that have been steadily smothering online freedoms they once tolerated.

The idea that the Internet was at best controlled anarchy and beyond any one nation’s control is fading globally amid determined attempts by more and more governments to tame the web. If innovations like Twitter were hailed as recently as the Arab uprisings as the new public square, governments like those in China, Pakistan, Turkey, Iran and now Russia are making it clear that they can deploy their tanks on virtual squares, too.

Governments have long hated the internet. If they had their way, as Maggie McNeill said yesterday, it would be a “gigantic, sanitized government-patrolled shopping mall for those who can afford full-time legal departments to sort out rules on content.” Political dissent would be stifled, blasphemy would be stomped down, any illegal or semi-legal activity would be crushed. And it would all be done in the name of peace, order, stability, the War on Drugs and/or fighting terrorism.

Or maybe revenge porn. Just in case you think the United States is immune from this, check out Scott Greenfield on federal efforts to fight “revenge porn”. At the heart of these efforts is a move to destroy Section 230 of the CDA. This is the law that protects online hosts from being held legally responsible for things posted on their blogs, comment boards and social media:

While the issues raised by state laws are bad enough, this federal law elevates the problem to a level that may well fundamentally alter the nature of the internet. Conceptually, the point is that third-party hosts, ranging from Google to Twitter to blogs and everything in between, which now enjoy the safe harbor of Section 230, would become criminally liable for what is uploaded by others.

Other than commercial porn websites, this creates a massive incentive for hosts to censor the internet of all provocative images. After all, how would Google know if the person in an image consents to its display? Why would Google want to risk its own criminal culpability so some yahoo in Iowa can post a nude picture? Google loves you, but not enough to go to prison for you.

I strongly suggest you read the whole thing because the sponsors and advocates of the federal bill are trying very hard to muddy the waters here, calling bloggers like Greenfield “perverts” for their efforts to combat a law that could cripple internet commentary.

A federal law means that all websites, all services, all apps, every third-party host, not just a “revenge porn site claiming to merely provide a platform for angry exes,” will be required to censor or suffer prosecution. [Law Professor Mary Anne Franks] left that part out. Oops.

This isn’t about a takedown regime, like a DMCA notice, with ensuing damages, but criminalizing content. It’s scorched earth for images, but by wrapping it up in the rhetoric of revenge porn, non-lawyers fail to recognize that it applies to everyone. This won’t escape notice by Google, Facebook and Twitter, who aren’t in the business of defending the First Amendment rights of their users at the risk of their own criminal liability.

So the emotional appeal, the intellectual dishonesty, the facile anecdotes and the vilification of anyone who disagrees will persist in the hopes that politicians will see this as the new “get tough” mechanism to appeal to the masses. When the smoke clears, it may well mean the end of revenge porn (unless it offshores), but it may also mean the end of the safe harbor that protects the full panoply of content protected by the First Amendment on the internet.

Meet the future, Cleansed, sanitized and wonderful. I expect to be Godwinized any moment now. But somebody has to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous women.

Does anyone .. does anyone … doubt that once cracks are made in Section 230, the rest of the federal police state will start jamming chisels into those cracks? Oh, there will be good reasons behind it: the War on Drugs, the War on Terror, the War on Sex Trafficking. But the effect will be the same: slowly sanitizing the internet of content that anyone finds offensive. Because once we give government a power, it will use that power to advance whatever agenda it can get away with.

This particular subject of revenge porn is thorny. Because of the nature of the internet, someone can easily post a naked picture of an ex anywhere. The victim may not know of it until long after it has spread to other websites. It’s difficult at best to track down the perpetrator. I remember Alyssa Milano in particular tried to fight this battle years ago over nude pictures from one of her movies and eventually just gave up. I’m not sure how this problem can be dealt with. My off-the-top-of-my-head suggestion would be to create federal law that responds to complaints from victims and goes after the perpetrator (not the hosts) for civil damages while using DMCA-esque takedown notices to remove it from hosts. Smarter people can probably come up with a better idea.

I do know that eviscerating Section 230 with criminal sanctions for hosted content is not the way to deal with this. That’s simply using revenge porn as an excuse to attack a section of law that our government and every Nanny in the country despises.

Suit up, friends. The fight for out internet freedom didn’t end with SOPA/PIPA. It only started. And it will never end as long as there are government and rulers who seek tyranny over the mind of man.

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  1. Dave D

    One other reason for the govenrnments interesst in “controlling” the internet: They haven’t really figured out a good way to TAX it yet. I bet that is the single major driving factor (with controlling dissent a close second).

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