A great article appeared in the Canadian Globe and Mail earlier this week. It was written by Peter MacKay a former Federal Attorney General of Canada. In the article MacKay reminds us, and here is the bad news, that even as the law is being amended in the USA (see below) a range of industry and other interests have persuaded US diplomats to press both the Canadian and Mexican Governments to agree to the incorporation of an identical version of the old law in the negotiations currently taking place on NAFTA.
The old law I am talking about is s.230 of the ironically named Communications Decency Act, 1996. It was so poorly drafted many US courts came to the conclusion that it provided an impregnable shield for companies such as Backpage. That is the web site that helped sell children for sex and facilitated the trade in trafficked adult sex workers.
Make no mistake, if anything like s.230 makes it into NAFTA it will reappear in future trade deals between the USA and other countries or trading blocs. As the US is likely to be one of the first post-Brexit trade deals we do, that is scary, but everybody who cares about children has an interest in ensuring this idea is killed stone dead now. It could be your country’s turn next.
But the good news is…..
Meanwhile yesterday the US Senate voted to change the law to erode the operation of s.230 in the USA and make it easier for web sites to be prosecuted if they fail to act in cases such as Backpage. The new law is very limited in its scope. In fact it leaves s.230 intact but says website operators who “promote or facilitate the prostitution of another person” will no longer have the legal protections of Section 230. Violators could face fines or prison sentences of up to 25 years.
We will see what this means in practice. Unsurprisingly the new law has its critics. Two Senators voted against it, one of whom was Ron Wyden. As a member of the House of Representatives, Wyden had proposed the original s.230 law.
Noting that most internet companies originally opposed the change in the law but in the end changed their minds, Wyden suggested this was only because they wanted to “curry favour” with Governments in countries where they wanted to do business. Hmm. So he is accusing businesses of behaving like, er, businesses.
Another way of looking at this is to acknowledge that the original vision of what the internet is or might become has been examined and found wanting. Reality has finally caught up with and crushed the dream. Sad. But true. We need to move on.