The Wrong Answer to a Serious Problem

Senator Wyden’s testimony to the Senate Committee on Commerce at the legislative hearing titled “S.1693, The Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act of 2017”

As prepared for delivery

Chairman Thune, Ranking Member Nelson, thank you for the opportunity to testify today as one of the authors of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. As has been testified to by numerous experts over the years, Section 230 was a necessary step to bring our legal system into the 21st Century, it has provided the legal foundation for the growth of the Internet as a massive job creator and platform for free speech around the world and I strongly believe it should be kept intact.

When I wrote Section 230 more than 20 years ago it was in recognition of the fact that the Internet was going to change the way we do business, the way we interact with each other, and frankly, virtually every other corner of our lives and our society. We understood that no amount of legislation and political bloviating could stop that change, but we could influence how it came about. Would we have an Internet dominated by private networks with all the worst impulses of human beings going on in impenetrable dark corners, or would it be a platform, open to the world, where such impulses would be exposed to the light, and the law.

This is why we made it crystal clear that nothing in the statute protects against violation of federal criminal law, and more importantly, nothing in the statute protects individuals from the full force of the law when they commit, and leave evidence of, their crimes online.

The Internet has exposed much about human behavior that we might prefer remain hidden. It has exposed much that many, particularly those in law enforcement, already knew. But it has exposed them, and the question before us is how we respond. Do we react like politicians, mindlessly bludgeoning the deep pockets, driving away innovation, and utterly failing to stop the worst behavior, but simply drive it underground. Or do we react with resolution and purpose, providing law enforcement with the resources to effectively attack a scourge far older than the Internet and to aid the victims of this horrible crime.

The issues we need to address should not be whether to eliminate the freedom that makes the Internet a place of innovation and economic growth. The issue we need to address is how we should identify and lock up the criminals who use the internet, as they have abused a thousand tools before it, to create victims and destroy lives.

If law enforcement needs more resources, or the tools to crack down in crime laden internet neighborhoods like Backpage let’s give them what they need. That includes a change in law to hold responsible those who might cynically design to profit from illegal behavior under the guise of providing a legal service. I have fought alongside many of you in the US Senate to end sex trafficking at home and abroad and support survivors of trafficking by providing resources to federal, state, and local law enforcement officials on the front lines of the fight against this modern-day slavery. And I will continue to do whatever it takes to provide strong protections and bring support to survivors, as well as the necessary resources to end this form of modern-day slavery and any form of exploitation.

I’ll put my record on sex trafficking up against anyone’s. Unfortunately, the bill that we’re looking at today is the wrong answer to a serious problem.

Here in Congress, it wasn’t that long ago members were calling the internet ‘a series of tubes.’ When it comes to legislating, we’ve had the most success when protecting Americans rights, and preventing incumbent industries from smothering innovation. That principle has allowed the U.S. tech sector to thrive and generate good paying jobs and keep America at the forefront of this wave of economic change.

I don’t think anyone on the Committee today thinks: Hey, let’s undermine this thing that’s created a trillion dollars of economic value, but this is what you are considering today. America may have played the biggest role in creating the Internet but, important to the discussion today, the barriers to entry are very, very low. The reason another nation with more people, including more computer users, like China or India, or who had a functioning interactive network decades before us, like France, have failed to dominate this new economy — it is our foundation of Internet laws that keep the grasping hands of the tax collector, the lawyer and the politician from hobbling growth and innovation. Those forces never give up, and they are at work, now, here, today.

When I helped author Section 230, I didn’t know all the effects it would have. But I did know three things:

  • First, I wanted to help small businesses by allowing them to hire engineers, developers, and designers before they hire a team of lawyers;
  • Second, I wanted to protect the good actors by allowing them to take down some material without being liable for everything. I think we can all agree that’s a better scenario than having websites hide their heads in the sand;
  • Third, bad actors would still be subject to federal law. People who commit crimes can and should be prosecuted, whether they’re online, or on a street corner. Protecting startups from discriminatory state law is important — but so is making sure criminals of all kinds are held accountable.

As you consider making changes to Section 230, I urge you to keep looking out for the little guy. Tech has been a bright spot in our economy for the last 20 years, and we need Section 230 in place to make sure it stays that way. And if you decide to make changes to Section 230, I may disagree with them, any change should receive sober consideration through regular order. This hearing is a good way to start, and I thank the Chairman and the Ranking Member for the opportunity to be here before this esteemed Committee.