Stop Terrorism: Erase the Internet?

The U.S. Supreme Court has a decision to make.  Will they override We The People?

What, exactly, do Supreme Court Justices know about the internet? Its origins, how it works, and how it’s managed? I’m sure they know more than the framers of the constitution, whom they’re about to consult, but perhaps not a lot more? That’s why we filed briefs in Gonzales v. Google and Twitter v. Taamneh – two related cases being argued this week that may determine who’s allowed to post stuff on the internet.

Does it surprise you that this is up for debate – and that the outcome is far from clear?

The real-world facts in these cases are similar; violent extremists took lives to instill terror in the innocent. Americans were killed. U.S. law says that anyone that “aided and abetted” this can be made to pay up. This is hard to argue against, so it makes me uncomfortable to have done just that.

The families of Gonzales and Taamneh argue that the internet aided and abetted terrorism by enabling extremists to post messages and videos online. More specifically, they argue that by taking down most-but-never-quite-all of the violent materials these “people” posted (despite everyone’s best efforts, all agree), that internet platforms aided the jihadi’s twisted cause. Moreover, the parties allege that the remaining videos, before being removed, showed up in video recommendations for “people” inclined to support these vermin. Which is mostly true, but mostly obvious and expected because that’s how the internet works?

Which is exactly the problem, and the reason the day may come when you’re no longer allowed to post anything online. Not hyperbole. Actually something to worry about.

The legal plumbing at the heart of all this is section 230 of the mostly-defunct Communications Decency Act – the “26 words that created the internet.” Passed into law in the mid 1990’s, section 230 established guiding principles for managing content on the only-just-emerging internet; that internet platforms aren’t responsible for what you post (surprise – you are!), and that platforms are free to moderate anyone’s content according to whatever policies they choose for their service. Whether you like that stance or not, it’s embedded in law, and the internet seems to have sort of flourished under that rule? Yeah Congress. Democracy gives you tools to change that, if you’d like. Please vote.

Search, recommendation, and moderation are fundamental to you finding what you want in the vast sea of internet content. If there was a better way, 40 years and millions of brilliant minds would have found it? Without 230 – if anyone hosting content on the internet can be sued for good/bad moderation – either the terrorist content wins or the internet becomes just another TV station. All third party content all the time, or nothing but network. And if recommendation/search (these are the same thing – change my mind) also attract lawsuits, then good luck finding anything. Care to speed-scroll every idiot thing the tribes upload to Twitter or Youtube in real time? Don’t believe me – read the 50+ briefs from both sides or listen to this guy.

Terrorism is a bad backdrop for messing with a foundational law for internet content. 18th century booksellers are poor analogies for Tiktok. The internet works, and section 230 is part of the reason why. The law is specific and easy to interpret. Terrorists are responsible for terrorist content. We ask the Supreme Court not to override the democratic right of the people to blame them, and them alone, for what they say and do.

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By Bruce Gustafson

Bruce is the President and CEO of the Developers Alliance, the leading advocate for the global developer workforce and the companies that depend on them. Bruce is also the founder of the Loquitur Group, a DC consulting firm, and the former VP and head of the DC Policy office of Ericsson, a global information and communications technology company, focusing on IPR, privacy, IoT, spectrum, cybersecurity and the impact of technology and the digital economy. He has previously held senior leadership positions in marketing and communications at both Ericsson and Nortel, as well as senior roles in strategy and product management across wireless, optical and enterprise communication product portfolios.

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