Cyber & Technology

Does SESTA Signal a Coming Change for Tech Companies' Liability?

By Alan Z. Rozenshtein
Tuesday, November 14, 2017, 1:30 PM

On Lawfare's feed at Foreign Policy, I wrote about how the progress of the "Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act of 2017" may signal the beginning of the end of technology companies' protection from liability for user content. The piece begins: 

On Wednesday the Senate commerce committee unanimously voted to send the “Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act of 2017” (SESTA) to the Senate floor. SESTA, the original version of which was introduced in August by a bipartisan group of senators, would make technology companies liable to state criminal prosecutions and federal or state civil suits if they have knowledge of user-generated content that facilitates sex trafficking but fail to act (for example, by taking the content down or blocking the offending users). SESTA accomplishes this by amending Section 230 of the Communication Decency Act of 1996 (CDA), a cornerstone of internet law, which generally immunizes technology companies from lawsuits that seek to treat them as publishers or speakers of content that the companies’ users generate or share.

Despite this important procedural vote, SESTA’s enactment is far from a done deal; shortly after the bill was voted out of committee, Sen. Ron Wyden, an original co-sponsor of CDA 230 and a consistent SESTA critic, announced that he was putting a senatorial hold on SESTA, blocking further action on the bill. And SESTA still faces strong opposition from some digital civil-society groups — the Electronic Frontier Foundation has called it “disastrous for free speech online.” But in a significant victory for the bill’s supporters, major technology companies have in the past several days declared their support. SESTA, a rare site of bipartisan cooperation in Congress (the bill currently has dozens of Republican and Democratic co-sponsors), has a very real chance of becoming law.