The Sacramento Bee implied in a recent article that Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif.,  was being inconsistent or unduly influenced by Silicon Valley campaign supporters for her reluctance to back this far-reaching bill. But Harris’ approach of finding a middle ground is the only sensible course, especially given the potential harm to internet speech that could result from a hastily drafted law.

It’s really tough to stand up to “mom and apple pie” legislation such as this bill. Indeed, that’s why the “Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act” is the most dangerous sort of legislation, in that it uses legitimate fears of the scourge of sex trafficking to grant the government newfound powers to shut down online speech.

It also grants attorneys the ability to sue website operators, search engines, email providers and other online players into oblivion. Is it any wonder the president of a trial-lawyer-backed “consumer advocacy group,” Consumer Watchdog, was quoted by the Bee favoring the bill? The act would certainly be good for the trial bar given that it would obliterate longstanding federal protections for those web-based “intermediaries” that host third-party online speech.

Thanks to Section 230 of the federal Communications Decency Act of 1996, Facebook, Google and even the Bee itself are limited in their liability for the posts, images and comments made on their sites. In the name of combating sex trafficking, this bill would eviscerate those protections by opening up intermediaries to federal criminal prosecution and civil liability.

“Without this protection, intermediaries would face a potential lawsuit in each one of the thousands, millions or even billions of posts, images and video uploaded to their services every day,” according to a letter that privacy groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, sent to the U.S. Senate leadership in August. Intermediaries would “err on the side of caution” and face an unending sea of litigation – something that will dangerously constrict speech on the internet.

It’s unclear what exact middle ground Harris is seeking, but there’s certainly nothing wrong with her listening to Bay Area tech firms on an issue that intimately involves them – and us. Sure, Harris seems to have changed her position from her days as attorney general, when she filed pimping charges against a website’s operator. A judge later tossed those charges for many of the same reasons free-speech advocates oppose this bill.

We should all be happy that Sen. Harris is growing in office. By all means, let’s clamp down on the human filth who operate as sex traffickers – but without threatening the kind of online free speech we’ve all come to expect on the internet.

Image by Vince360


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