The past few months have seen plenty of attempts to undermine Section 230, the law that makes a free Internet possible. But now we’re seeing one from a surprising place: the California League of Cities.
To be clear, the League of Cities, an association of city officials from around the state, doesn’t have the power to change Section 230 or any other federal law. But if Congress were to actually follow their lead, the policies that the League is considering approving would be disastrous for the freedom of California residents.
Section 230 states that websites and online services can’t be sued or prosecuted based on content created by their users. This straightforward regulation is based on the simple fact that you are responsible for your own speech online.
This week, the League will consider a resolution proposed by the city of Cerritos, which would effectively force website owners, large or small, to surveil their sites and remove content that “solicits criminal activity.” If they don’t, they would lose Section 230 protections and be exposed to civil suits, as well as state-level criminal prosecutions, for their users’ misdeeds. The resolution goes further, requiring websites and apps to help police with the “identification and apprehension” of people deemed (by the police) to be soliciting crime of any kind.
The Cerritos proposal is based on a crime that never happened. According to the proposal, Cerritos police responded to an anonymous posting on Instagram, inviting followers to “work together to loot Cerritos [M]all.” Nothing happened, but the city of Cerritos has now asked the League to endorse dramatic changes to federal law in order to give police vast new powers.
If the vague allegation that a website was used by city residents to "solicit criminal activity" is enough to expose that website to prosecutions and lawsuits, it will result in widespread Internet censorship. If Congress were to pass such an amendment to Section 230, it would provide a lever for government officials to eliminate protest and rally organizing via social media. Online platforms would be coerced into performing police surveillance of residents in cities throughout California. That’s the last thing we need during a year when millions of Americans have taken to the streets protesting police abuses.
Two California League of Cities committees have considered and passed the resolution, despite considerable opposition. On Sept. 29, the League’s Public Safety Committee met and passed the resolution by an 19-18 vote. EFF spoke at those committee meetings and delivered a letter [PDF] expressing our opposition to committee members.
If California municipalities want to weigh in on Internet regulation that will have national ramifications, they should do so in a way that benefits their residents—like legislation that could protect net neutrality, or reduce the digital divide.
Instead, the City of Cerritos and a few allies are urging the League to ask for a new type of Internet. It would be one in which their own residents are under constant surveillance online, and local newspapers and blogs would have to either close their online discussion sections, or patrol them for behavior that might offend local police.
We hope League members vote against this resolution, and send Congress a message that Californians want an Internet that respects users’ rights—not one focused on doing the police’s work for them.