Succumbing to years of government pressure, the online classified ads website Backpage.com has shut down its adult services section. Just like Craigslist before it, Backpage faced the difficult choice of censoring an entire forum for online speech rather than continue to endure the costly onslaught of state and federal government efforts seeking to hold it responsible for the illegal activity of some of its users.
The announcement came on the eve of a hearing by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (PSI). The hearing was the backdrop for the release of a committee report [PDF] alleging [PDF] that Backpage knew that its website was being used to post ads for illegal prostitution and child sex trafficking, and directly edited such ads to make their illegality less conspicuous or flagged for the posters how to do so themselves.
While acknowledging the horrific nature of sex trafficking, EFF has participated in several cases to remind courts about the importance of preserving strong legal protection under the First Amendment and Section 230 (47 U.S.C. § 230) for Internet intermediaries.
For example, we were counsel for the Internet Archive in two cases in which Backpage was co-plaintiff, one in Washington state and the other in New Jersey, challenging state laws that sought to hold online companies responsible for hosting third-party ads for illegal sexual transactions. We successfully argued that the laws were invalid under the First Amendment and Section 230.
Section 230 is the two-decade old statute passed by Congress to promote online free speech and innovation by immunizing (with certain exceptions) Internet intermediaries from liability for illegal content created or posted by their users. Section 230 immunity holds as long as the companies did not themselves create the illegal content, while editing user-generated content is permitted by Section 230 as long as the editing itself does not make the content illegal.
We’ve also filed amicus briefs in support of strong legal protections for Internet intermediaries. We filed an amicus brief in an emotionally tough Massachusetts case against Backpage brought by young women trafficked for sex as minors via the website. The court rightly dismissed the case, largely adopting our Section 230 arguments.
Much of Backpage’s fights have hinged on defending fundamental First Amendment rights online. We submitted an amicus brief in a case where Backpage successfully challenged the “campaign of suffocation” by an Illinois sheriff who had illegally coerced major credit card companies to stop doing business with Backpage. Recently, we submitted an amicus brief in a case where Backpage is challenging some of the subpoenas issued by PSI, arguing that the committee’s inquiry into Backpage’s ad moderating practices amounts to improper government interference into core editorial functions protected by the First Amendment—something we also argued Sen. Thune did in relation to Facebook’s “trending” news stories.
During the PSI hearing, senators expressed their disdain for Backpage’s reliance on Section 230 and the First Amendment. Chairman Rob Portman (R-OH) said that Backpage’s invocation of Section 230 is a “fraud on courts, on victims, and on the public.” Ranking Member Claire McCaskill (D-MO) exclaimed, “This investigation is not about curbing First Amendment rights. Give me a break!” And Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) said that Backpage has “the audacity to hide behind the First Amendment.”
EFF and other civil liberties organizations are all too familiar with the fact that First Amendment rights are often championed by those accused of disseminating unpopular or harmful speech. And when First Amendment rights are weakened for one unsavory person or entity, First Amendment rights become weakened for everyone.
Most disturbing during the hearing, Chairman Portman said that the committee will explore “legislative remedies” to address the problem of online sex trafficking. This surely means a weakening of Section 230 protection for Internet intermediaries, which EFF strongly opposes. Congress already passed the SAVE Act in 2015, which amended the federal criminal statute on sex trafficking to include anyone involved in advertising sex trafficking. This amendment was specifically meant to target online platforms that host ads posted by third parties, and strip those platforms of Section 230 protection since the statute does not provide immunity against federal criminal charges.
Any changes to Section 230 itself, to make it easier to impose liability on companies for user-generated content, would be devastating to the web as we know it—as a thriving online metropolis of free speech and innovation. As my colleague Matt Zimmerman wrote back in 2010 when Craigslist shuttered its adult services section, Section 230 “is not some clever loophole” but rather “a conscious policy decision by Congress to protect individuals and companies who would otherwise be vulnerable targets to litigants who want to silence speech to which they object.”
Matt further explained:
This clear protection plays an essential role in how the Internet functions today, protecting every interactive website operator—from Facebook to Craigslist to the average solo blog operator—from potentially crippling legal bills and liability stemming from comments or other material posted to websites by third parties. Moreover, if they were obligated to pre-screen their users’ content, wide swaths of First Amendment-protected speech would inevitably be sacrificed as website operators, suddenly transformed into conservative content reviewers, permitted only the speech that they could be sure would not trigger lawsuits.
So while Backpage’s announcement suggests that the company’s opponents have at least temporarily won the battle against the adult services section of the website (because Backpage has vowed to continue its legal battles), EFF will continue to try to win the war to ensure that both the First Amendment and Section 230 remain strong protectors of Internet intermediaries—the online innovators who enable the rest of us to communicate, engage in commerce, and generally be active participants in our democratic and diverse society like never before.