ABC Nightline last night late aired a scathing report on Backpage.com, which reportedly pulled its adult ads section after facing a Senate committee. The video for the report is here. It will move on and play a second video (total 25 minutes).
Sunny Hostin from “The View” explained how Section 230 (of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, of Communications Decency Act, is supposed to work). It protects a site from what users (“other people”) post on it. But the reporter did ask, “shouldn’t a site owner know what’s on it’s site?”
Well, if you’re a company with tens of thousands of users, which is the scale you need for profits, that isn’t possible. That’s why we have Section 230.
But it appears that Backpage may have altered some ads; it if knew what was there, then it can’t credibly claim immunity. Or maybe it can, according to this site.
I presume that the Bloomberg article on Backpage’s conduct is factual enough to link to it, here.
The case is important because it can tempt Congress, especially in a new Trump administration with a president personally hostile to computers (“no computer is safe”) to eliminate Section 230 entirely, as merely protecting “gratuitous” speech that doesn’t carry its own weight but allows some users to pose grave asymmetric risks to others. In other words, all must sacrifice some freedom because of the behavior of the few, like giving an entire class detention in school for the behavior of two or three students – it happens.
But, then, how would the Supreme Court rule on the inevitable legal challenges. Congress could try to narrow any tightening of 230 to ad content rather than articles, but it could be hard to draw a clean line. Is an author’s page selling books an ad, especially if it takes credit cards directly?
ABC hasn’t put its latest video up yet. The report above is a few months old. The Backpage issue has been going on for quite some time, with courts using Section 230 to let it off the hook, but that could change now.
It would be instructive to compare Backpage’s use of Section 230 to that of Airbnb.
It would also be important to know how effective is law enforcement in protecting individual girls (underage) with case-by-case arrests and prosecutions of customers (like in NBC’s “To Catch a Predator” a few years ago).
Section 230 does not shield hosts for child pornography, but they are liable only if they know about it or see it themselves first; they don’t pro-actively screen for it (although Google now screens for digital watermarks of known images).