In the quiet courts of New York, a judge is being asked to hold the Trump administration accountable for its lack of competence when it comes to implementing a crucial rule designed to protect children from adult-targeted digital content — like a pornographic song title. Judge Alvin Hellerstein has been handling the case, which is unusual given that the government has objected to the order in every instance and has objected as of late — both before and after the court issued the temporary order in January, and after the government asked the court to freeze the decision pending appeal. But now, the government may have no choice but to accept the lower court’s order that it implement the rule by Friday.
That order refers to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which in essence gives a huge legal shield to online platforms to protect children from exploitative content. Section 230 was passed in 1996, more than a decade before the advent of the internet. But today, it’s up to Congress to act to protect people from abusive content on the internet, and there’s nothing like Section 230 to do it. The only way to force app stores to block access to any objectionable content is to force them to restrict access to as many websites as possible.
And as Ronan Farrow explained in an article for The New Yorker, there’s no reason why app stores should not feel compelled to block access to the most offensive content. Their judgment as to what that content is is entirely up to them. Sure, not all content on the internet should be banned, but doing so would go a long way toward preventing children from being exploited by sexual predators.
It’s hard to see how the government can do anything but cave to this ruling. It wants the exemption to Section 230 because it is convinced that it should have more power over people’s use of the internet and over which websites that connect to the internet can and cannot be blocked. But to get rid of Section 230 is actually to remove the legal protection that has enabled companies to flourish and protect the internet from the ploys of online criminals and hoaxers. As we’ve seen, media companies have long used the internet to rip off young children. And yes, digital platforms are more efficient in terms of bandwidth and delivery than old-fashioned broadcast networks. But blocking access to the internet and the internet’s ability to connect kids with new- and old-fashioned media is a pitiful replacement for an industry that will forever be off-line. Just because cable networks have put up paywalls doesn’t mean they’ve realized the mistake of their ways. It’s been a decade since Viacom tried to pull the plug on VH1 and MTV, and Viacom was reined in for so long on a variety of fronts because of its abysmal performance in TV viewers’ hearts and minds. The best way to protect kids from sexual predators is to protect them from television. And the best way to protect kids from trolls who ruin their lives is to protect them from the internet. That’s what Section 230 is all about.