Google, Facebook, et al say they are just conduits — much like the proverbial public square — so that they can’t be held legally responsible for what transpires on the platforms they have created.
Never mind that Larry Page, Mark Zuckerberg, et al are getting filthy rich plastering the electronic public square deliberately with ads they charge for based on the number of clicks. They chose not to make the connection that their wealth is directly connected to what happens in the public square that they created.
So what if illegal activity happens such as backpage.com where prostitution — wink, wink — flourishes including the trafficking of underage girls and boys as well as those past the age of majority that are being forced to do so. Not their problem, although they will babble the corporate line about how concerned they are about social injustice as their bean counters load up another armored truck with that hour’s earnings.
Besides, as they point out in court cases, they have immunity for what goes on in their privately held electronic public square under a federal law from the 1990s designed to help the then fledging Internet get off the ground. Of course, if someone tried to post an ad in their public square and not pay it would be removed quickly. Contrary to assurances by the likes of Zuckerberg that it isn’t about money, it’s about money. They can say all they want but Page, Zuckerberg and Bill Gates are all about the money. Just like Henry Ford and Andrew Carnegie, who ruthlessly wiped out the competition while generating boatloads of money, the high tech free marketers don’t become philanthropists until after they’ve gained control and are drowning in money.
High tech titans say they shouldn’t be governed by rules binding mere mortals such as those who publish the Los Angeles Times. If evidence exists that the LA Times knowingly took ads from an organization known to profit by coercing 15-year-old girls into having sex with paying customers responding to a newspaper classified, there would be hell to pay in civil damages and the criminal courts.
But, hey, Google doesn’t produce content. They are just a conduit. They can’t be expected to police bad behavior such as sex trafficking taking place on a forum they built and make a fortune off of its use.
There is a bi-partisan effort in Congress aimed at rolling back the federal immunity law for online firms if it can be proven they knew that a particular site they opened their public square to was facilitating sex trafficking. Sponsored by Senators Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Bob Portman, R-Ohio, the bill has already gathered 30 co-sponsors or almost a third of the U.S. Senate.
This, of course, has tech millionaires and billionaires aghast. They say this would have unintended consequences of legitimate sites being sued. So they favor allowing targeted lawsuits by sex trafficking victims to go after those that benefit by selling their bodies online and keeping the middlemen out of any lawsuits.
Give the devil his due. Let Google and Facebook hide behind their contention they basically provide space for people to do their thing, whether that may be legal or otherwise.
They hide behind the First Amendment. So instead, the government should go after them like any other property owner given they own their own portals. Google et al and other Internet operators should have to deal with social host laws.
Illegal activity takes place on your property — the discharge of illegal fireworks, drug sales, prostitution, etc., that impacts public safety and health — and you don’t deter it, you are on the hook.
The courts have made it clear landlords — whether they collect rent or not from a person they allow to use their property — are responsible if that property is used to facilitate illegal activity.
The bottom line of social host laws is to make the owner of the property, or the people they rent or lease it to, responsible for crime that originates from that property. To avoid being caught up in a social host prosecution, landlords need to be responsible.
And that’s all Google and Facebook really are in their view of the world — virtual landlords of the Internet where they invite people to do their thing. The rent paid is through advertising by third parties who rely on Google and Facebook squeezing as many “eyes” as possible into the Internet property they control.
The law — and law-abiding residents — would not tolerate a landlord allowing a drug house or house of ill repute operate in a neighborhood. And they certainly would be swift action to close down such uses if minors are involved as well as adults that are and to go after the landlord.
It’s time to stop letting tech firms wrap themselves in the First Amendment and to treat them for what they are — the owners of the biggest chunk of property in the virtual world. And in doing so we need to remember they are not non-profits and the Internet equivalent of Mother Teresa. They are in it for the money.