FOSTA is model for reforming Section 230


Americans are growing increasingly wary of the power wielded by massive technology companies and the outdated legal shield protecting them — Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. This decades-old statute prevents these entities from taking responsibility for censorship, privacy violations, and illegal activity ranging from child exploitation and human trafficking to international terrorism and extremist groups. That is why more and more Americans are asking for changes to how potentially illicit online behavior is regulated.

In June 2020, Gallup reported that nearly 8 out of every 10 Americans believe that tech companies have too much power, and over half said that Section 230 has caused more harm than good. Members of Congress are trying to address these serious concerns. During the 116th Congress, 26 bills were introduced targeting Section 230. Just one-quarter of the way through the 117th Congress, 10 bills have already been introduced regarding Section 230, ranging from full repeal to instituting narrow exceptions for certain cases. Of these 36 attempts to reform Section 230 over the past two and a half years, none have become law.

The fact of the matter is, over the past two decades, only one bill amending Section 230 has become law: my legislation, the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, better known as FOSTA. 

Throughout my time in Congress, I have made it my priority to give a voice to the voiceless and protect the most vulnerable. Before I drafted FOSTA, I met with countless victims of human trafficking who shared their harrowing stories of being advertised and sold, night after night, into sex slavery through websites that shamefully hid behind Section 230. These brave survivors wanted to fight back and hold these websites accountable for facilitating their abuse and exploitation. They needed a partner in Congress so, in 2016, I championed legislation to allow them to do just that.

Just a few years ago, Section 230 was still relatively unknown to the American public. But once FOSTA was introduced, the tech giants came out against me in force, and they continue to attack FOSTA to this day. Lobbyists representing every corner of Silicon Valley spread half-truths or outright lies about my legislation in order to protect their outdated and irresponsible liability protections. I fought tooth and nail, beating back spurious attempts to derail substantive and meaningful reform. Big Tech’s efforts were unsuccessful, and I’m proud to say Congress passed FOSTA with overwhelming bipartisan support in 2018. However, our work must continue.

Over the course of this pandemic, we have been thrust out of the public square and into the digital void. Isolation caused many Americans to turn to an internet ruled by just a handful of corporations for social interaction, political commentary, and vital public health information. And throughout this time, we have seen some of the worst of the internet. People’s lives have been ruined, claims once flagged by these companies as false or misleading are now being promoted as true (and vice versa), online child exploitation has skyrocketed, calls for violence have grown on both the left and right, and numerous American citizens have been de-platformed with little explanation and no recourse. All the while, the corporate oligarchy dominating the technological world goes unchecked.

It is time for Congress to work together to fundamentally reform Section 230 and ensure all Americans, especially victims of sex crimes and abuse, can see justice and fairness under the law. Tech companies should no longer be able to eschew basic responsibilities just to make another dollar at the expense of the most vulnerable in our society. Commonsense reform of Section 230 will mean these massive tech giants must exercise civic responsibility and be responsive to the rights of victims. My efforts have shown that Democrats and Republicans can unite behind this issue, and I will continue to work with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle until the American people see the results they deserve.

Ann Wagner represents Missouri’s 2nd District.

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