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Anti-sex trafficking law could unintentionally cripple Wikipedia

It's asking Congress to look out for smaller sites and non-profits when drafting the bill.
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Wikimedia Foundation

After historically opposing changes to the Communications Decency Act's Section 230, web giants came out in favor of a proposed amendment to the law, which would punish a website for knowingly facilitating sexual exploitation. But, unlike the Internet Association (which includes Amazon, Google, and Facebook), Wikipedia stands opposed to the provision. Mainly, it's worried about the negative impact the broad-brush legislation may have on the little guy. In a Medium post, the Wikemedia Foundation's legal fellow Leighanna Mixter claims the the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) could threaten its entire existence -- which may be overstressing it.

Currently making its way through Congress, SESTA would amend section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA), which protects internet companies from liability for user-created content that may end up on their sites. Opponents of the bill, like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), claim it could cripple small-scale websites and stifle innovation by opening the litigation floodgates.

Mixter points to three principles in the bill that are crucial to Wikipedia. Firstly, CDA 230 keeps sites safe by encouraging content-hosting, in exchange for the removal of "problematic" material. SESTA, Mixter writes, adds vague language that "expands liability for 'knowing' support of certain criminal activity," that could result in sites unintentionally landing in trouble. Mixter claims that the ambiguous wording around "knowing" must include "clear guidelines" that don't accidentally trigger liability.

Second, SESTA also permits states to hold sites liable, requiring websites to navigate 50 potentially different standards, instead of the single standard currently imposed by the Section 230 federal law. Doing so, claims Mixter, would put a huge burden on smaller outfits (like the Wikimedia Foundation).

Finally, the post expands upon EFF's points about the increased lawsuits that may abound from the bill. When "plaintiffs target online speech, they often go after the website, not the speaker," which can prove less troublesome and more lucrative. The shield provided by CDA 230 remains crucial for websites more than 20 years after the law's creation, claims Mixter. Even if the lawsuits are "meritless," getting them dismissed "demands significant time and resources," she writes.

Ultimately, Wikimedia is urging Congress to consider SESTA's impact on small businesses alongside the tech titans. The same small businesses that don't have the revenue or resources to battle lawsuits, or the algorithms to clean up their sites.

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