Hoeven, Heitkamp back anti-sex trafficking legislations which could gut internet freedom

North Dakota Sens. Heidi Heitkamp and John Hoeven have made themselves co-sponsors of what’s being called the “Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act.”

This bipartisan legislation, introduced by Republican Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, would amend the Communications Act of 1934 to “clarify that section 230 of that Act does not prohibit the enforcement of “laws related to sex trafficking” against web service providers.

Currently people who operate websites — everyone from a blogger with a comment section to Facebook — enjoys, courtesy of section 230, a level of immunity from liability for illegal content posted on their services without their knowledge.

Politicians, who have been on something of a crusade against human trafficking in recent years, see this exemption as a loophole which allows traffickers to flourish.

From another point of view, that immunity is foundational to the internet’s success as a communications medium.

Imagine for a moment how Facebook could possibly operate if the company were liable, both in a civil and criminal sense, for everything posted on their service.

They couldn’t.

There is no practical way for Facebook to police all of the communication — all the status updates and private messages — which flow through their services.

Even attempting it would be a process so alienating to users that they’d likely quit the service in droves.

The same goes for Google or Twitter or even newspaper companies which host comment sections and/or discussion forums on their websites.

To be clear, people and companies who provide services on the internet absolutely should be liable for whatever illegal content or activities they’re aware of.

If Google, for example, knows that one of their services is being used to facilitate human trafficking or any other type of illegal activity and allows it to continue happening while taking no steps to stop it then the company should be liable.

But should Facebook face criminal or civil liability because a prostitute arranges a transaction through the social networking site’s messaging feature?

Should Google face repercussions because someone used Gmail to solicit sex?

Proponents of this legislation will probably argue that law enforcement officials would not use this law in such absurd ways, but why should we rely on the forbearance of the government?

Why should we trust that they won’t abuse this new power over the providers of some of our most important avenues for communication?

It’s bad enough that these politicians draw few distinctions between consensual prostitution — willing seller, willing buyer transactions for sexual services — and the sort of sexual slavery that can fairly be called human trafficking.

Now their overzealous crusade threatens one of the most important legal protections the internet has.

Hoeven and Heitkamp should rethink their support for this legislation.

Port, founder of SayAnything

Blog.com, a North Dakota political blog, is a Forum Communications commentator. Follow him on Twitter at @RobPort