On Thursday, NetChoice announced the fall 2013 update to this year’s Internet Advocates Watchlist of Ugly Laws (iAWFUL) list, a collection of legislation that has the potential to undermine key elements of Internet freedom and commerce.
Topping the iAWFUL list are federal and state proposals that make Internet companies more liable for content shared by consumers. Changing this basic operating principle of the Internet has devastating repercussions for both startups and established companies.
Like Godzilla, who arrives and destroys great human accomplishments with wanton abandon, the number one threat to the Internet’s future success is a proposal to modify Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act – a law that protects websites from liability for content or commerce posted by users, allowing user-generated content (UGC) sites like Facebook, Reddit, Yelp and many others to operate.
Section 230 is foundational law for the modern Internet – sites we use everyday could not exist without it, and if amended, website operators will wake up to a nightmare reality of new liability for criticisms posted by users.”
These sites rely on the assurance that they will not be held legally responsible for comments, reviews, and criticisms posted by their users. Proposed changes to Section 230 would allow prosecution due to user-generated content (UGC) under any state law – a change that would effectively put an end to UGC sites as we currently know them.
Examples of the impact of this amendment are seen across the industry. Yelp would find itself in trouble under Louisiana law if a restaurant reviewer showed “contempt” for a waiter. LinkedIn could be liable under Georgia law for comments posted to a profile that “blackens the memory” of an individual. Google could be liable for violating Michigan law if it shows car ads to a 17 year-old.
“Section 230 is foundational law for the modern Internet – sites we use everyday could not exist without it,” said Steve DelBianco, NetChoice’s Executive Director. “If amended, website operators will wake up to a nightmare reality of new liability for criticisms posted by users.”
The second entry on the iAWFUL list also undermines Section 230. California bill SB 568 would make e-commerce sites liable for ads posted by users. Under SB 568, it would be illegal for sites to show ads to teenagers for items such as pepper spray and lottery tickets.
As above, this bill would undermine a multitude of businesses while providing little public good. For example, under SB 568, eBay would be liable if a teenaged Californian was shown a listing for spray paint, and could incur a $2,500 penalty for each online impression.
In addition to being unenforceable, California SB 568 violates federal Section 230 protections by holding publishers liable for the ads on their site, a violation of the First Amendment and a chilling of free speech. While the legislation was signed into law last fall, NetChoice expects that the bill’s constitutionality will be challenged on the grounds of the First Amendment, dormant commerce clause, and supremacy clause.
Another new addition to the iAWFUL are a set of bills in Michigan (HB 4981) and Massachusetts (H 3068) restricting license plate reader (LPR) technology widely used by law enforcement. A misleading report issued earlier this year from the ACLU tricked legislators into believing that LPR technology is unregulated and thus subject to misuse, a fallacy the ACLU continues to support.
In fact, existing federal law already limits access to vehicle registration records for legitimate purposes like criminal and missing person investigations, court orders, and car recall notifications. New laws that would arbitrarily dump historical LPR data will undermine these limited and legitimate purposes.
Number four, the eternal threat of new taxes on Internet commerce, continues to stagger about like a deranged and desperate zombie.
Finally, efforts to overrule the wishes of the recently deceased appropriately round out this horrifying list of shortsighted scares.
The full iAWFUL list for fall 2013 is available below.
- Efforts to Upend the Most Important Internet Law You’ve Never Heard Of – A seemingly small change to Section 230 could spell the end of user-generated content sites as we know them.
- California Law Chills the use of Internet Sites – Unconstitutional California law is discriminatory and creates liability for internet sites that show ads to teenagers for items such as pepper spray and lottery tickets.
- Infringing on the Right to Public Photography and Making it Harder to Find Criminals – Legislators are being misled to believe that a tool of law enforcement is unregulated or violates personal information, but that is far from the truth.
- Federal Internet Sales Tax – Imposing a new tax, new collection and filing requirements, and unleashing up to 600 auditors on online businesses.
- Creating New Taxes on Travel Services – Creating new taxes on travel agents and expanding hotel taxes to all parts of bundled travel packages.
- Taking Away Control Over Your Online Accounts – Allowing a court-appointed executor to counter your express wishes for how your online accounts are handled when you die.
The iAWFUL reflects the editorial views of the Executive Director of NetChoice and does not necessarily reflect the views of all NetChoice members.