As a way to learn more about a topic I know little about, I attended a presentation about human trafficking where they showed the documentary I am Jane Doe. The film highlighted many of the issues surrounding this “modern-day slavery” but in particular focused on the website that serves as a clearinghouse for children to be bought and sold.
I was struck by the seeming legal imperviousness of this site – as they have won or had dismissed all of the cases against them (except for one that is in limbo). The crux of their argument comes down to the Communications Decency Act (CDA) which protects sites from liability for what third parties post on their platform. It makes sense that Facebook wouldn’t be sued directly if someone posted something negative about another – but does that broad interpretation extend to a site that helps others post cryptic descriptions of sex traffic? Currently, the courts say yes.
The CDA is an act that made good sense when it was established in the early days of the internet but needs to at least be revisited in light of contemporary conditions. Does Free Speech extend to protecting illegal activities? Should a website that provides patrons advice on how to disguise the true intent of their posting be covered by the CDA? Or should the CDA stay as it stands and protect all third-party postings as it has been interpreted to do?
The documentary serves to highlight the unintended consequences of the CDA but the principles apply to many issues beyond human trafficking. What rules or policies has your organization had in place for years that preceded the internet era and should be revisited? (Iowa just encountered one when the post office bar code was invalid to determine the mail date of a paper ballot because the law said “postmark”.) Have you re-read your policies lately to see if the intent still matches practice?
The time to review your policies is before you are faced with defending them.