First step in restoring Internet sanity: Passing legislation to stop online sex trafficking
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Last week at a sports technology conference at MIT, former President Obama talked about the Big Tech platforms. "[W]e have to have serious conversation,” he noted “about what are the business models, the algorithms, (and) the mechanics whereby we can create more of a common conversation and that cannot just be a commercially driven conversation."

Congress has a chance this week to make a significant contribution to this debate. There is a growing consensus among lawmakers and thought leaders on the right and left that the willful blindness of dominant internet platforms to the consequences of their business models is undermining our values, society and economy. Last week, the House took a first step towards fixing a badly broken internet when it overwhelmingly passed a bill (FOSTA-SESTA) aimed at curbing internet platform enabled sex-trafficking—a bill vehemently opposed by “internet freedom” groups. Now, the Senate should do the same.


Most importantly, the legislation amends Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act to expressly carve out sex-trafficking facilitation from CDA 230’s otherwise virtually unlimited immunity from liability for user generated content on their services—like advertisements selling women and girls.

Sens. Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanGrassley to vote against Tanden nomination Murkowski undecided on Tanden as nomination in limbo Biden signs supply chain order after 'positive' meeting with lawmakers MORE (R-Ohio) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), and Reps. Ann WagnerAnn Louise WagnerSix ways to visualize a divided America House panel spars over GameStop frenzy, trading apps Republicans rally to keep Cheney in power MORE (R-Mo.), Goodlatte (R-Va.) and Sean MaloneySean Patrick MaloneyAudience cheers Maloney for getting Sondland to say he assumes Trump 'would benefit' from investigation into Bidens Applause breaks out after Vindman says he's not worried about testifying because 'this is America' Live coverage: House holds third day of public impeachment hearings MORE (D-N.Y.) should be commended for their leadership. Senators should reflect on the broader state of the internet, and where this legislation fits into the national dialogue emerging about internet platforms, and strengthen their resolve to act. They have the overwhelming backing of the public: “A majority of Americans are now concerned that the government won't do enough to regulate how U.S. technology companies operate, according to an Axios-SurveyMonkey poll. Across the board, concern about government inaction is up significantly — 15 percentage points — in the past three months.”

Our society is a reflection of deliberate choices made by representative government, empowered by the consent of the people. By contrast, platforms are built to maximize efficiency, and they achieve this through the use of predictive algorithms, creating the appearance of choice while actually limiting and eroding free will and consent—the algorithm decides what you see, where you go, and what you buy online.

Moreover, the algorithms produced by Silicon Valley engineers reflect the assumptions and biases of their creators who are largely blind to the challenges and inequities of oppressed people—including trafficked women and girls—whose liberty is ensured by government. As a result, the disconnect between the social compact agreed upon by a free people and the arbitrary rules promulgated by Silicon Valley is becoming increasingly fraught. A ProPublica investigation of Facebook ad campaigns found the platform provided “Jew haters” as a target audience, and BuzzFeed was prompted by Google to associate ads with search terms like “black people ruin neighborhoods.” Worse, we now know Russian operatives exploited online platforms to influence the presidential election and sow discord; and abroad, social media is being used to foment ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar.

Lawmakers and regulators are taking notice. Twitter, Facebook and Google executives are repeatedly facing withering criticism before Congress and other legislative bodies. Still, in seemingly all cases Silicon Valley intermediaries resist accountability for the behavior they enable—or as Reuters reporter Dustin Volz ironically tweeted: “[W]e care deeply about this problem but laws attempting to fix it could break the internet’ said every tech company about everything, ever.”

However, even in Silicon Valley, internet companies tried and true talking point that “we’re just neutral platforms” is increasingly viewed with skepticism—if not outright hostility. Former Google and Facebook employees like Tristan Harris and Roger MacNamee are in many ways leading the charge, calling on their former employers and colleagues to reconcile their business models, which generate incredible wealth for themselves, with the significant costs they impose on the rest of us.

Given this backdrop, it is inconceivable that Congress wouldn’t swiftly and overwhelmingly pass FOSTA-SESTA. Because if we won’t protect our children from the horrors of online human trafficking, how can we credibly expect to tackle the internet’s other problems?

There is a legitimate discussion to be had about the proper scope of intermediary liability, but it is simply untenable for dominant online platforms to maintain the position that they have no role to play. Therefore, Congress must act—reasserting the agency of the American people over the business imperatives of internet platforms.

“Life, freedom and the common decencies” depend on it.

Jonathan Taplin is the Director Emeritus of the Annenberg Innovation Lab at the University of Southern California and the author of “Move Fast and break Things: How Facebook, Google and Amazon Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy.”