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Shining Some Light on the Dark Web

Old laws toothless in the new web world.

The seedier side of the internet gained notoriety with the juggernaut of illicit online products and services, Silk Road, which promised to protect users’ privacy. Sex trafficking, human smuggling, murder for hire, body parts for sale – all had a welcome place. As the dark web flourished, the feds began to frown on selling arms and legs on the open market. So Silk Road was officially put out of business in 2014 — but not before averaging $15 million in Bitcoin and cryptocurrency transactions annually.

General rule of thumb: Stay off the dark web.

But any enterprising person can use Facebook and Twitter to purchase firearms, falsified identification documents, and illicit drugs of choice under the radar. You can even fund-raise for a terror attack.  That’s all thanks to the 1996 Communications Decency Act Section 230 (CDA230), which says: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” 

In other words, these online intermediaries – Twitter, Instagram, Codias, Facebook – cannot be held responsible for what their users say or do. Intermediaries are defined as Internet Service Providers (ISPs), interactive computer service providers, and any outfit that publishes third-party content. It is essentially a protection of free speech.

Trading Freedom for Law Enforcement?

The Alliance to Counter Crime Online (ACCO) is on the front lines of combing through the terror lurking on the everyday user’s laptop, phone, and pad. According to its research data, “more than one third of the world is on social media” and “25% of user profiles are Avatars,” allowing for additional shielding from prying law enforcement eyes.

ACCO isn’t shy in assessing Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, as Gretchen Peters, ACCO’s executive director, states:

“We believe Internet firms should become liable, much like financial institutions, for removing crime and terror activity from their systems, and that they should be sharing data about illicit activity proactively with law enforcement, and not deleting the scene of the crime.”

ACCO reports Hezbollah openly ran an “equip a jihadi” fundraiser on Twitter, boasting of using the funds to attack Israel. Mexican cartels use Facebook as a platform to launder money, move drugs, and hire hits on enemies. And at this point in the online community, the social platforms can’t keep up with the illegal traffic – although their efforts are valiant. Facebook has removed 1.5 million drug sales posts in the six months since amending its standards of enforcement policy, which is more than the Silk Road hosted during its entire unsavory run.

But imagine the transactions that they aren’t catching: That should send goosebumps skittering down the spine.

In 1996, when CDA230 was enacted, there were only 100,000 websites, just 20 million American adults had access to the internet – which was dial-up – and Google had yet to exist. Could today and the future have even been contemplated?

Although CDA230 grants sweeping immunities to a single industry, there are limits and amendments.  Instead of terrorist fundraising, however, restrictions are geared more toward copyright infringement.  Section 230 was changed last year to damper the burgeoning human acquisitions and sales industry and in 2018 to add compliance to the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, which required social platforms to remove any material in violation of sex-trafficking laws.

Why Mess With Success?

The First Amendment was written at a time when today’s mediums of communication and ensured anonymity behind a keyboard could not have been imagined.  And some critics are seeking an overhaul in the only legal self-regulating industry.

As ACCO requests Congress to saddle the big-tech giants with responsibility, are we abandoning the tenets of free speech or protecting the vulnerable from unforeseen dangers on the internet?

Frankly, messing with freedom of speech is a slippery slope best left untraveled;  once breached, there will be no end to alterations and reversals of basic rights. Perhaps asking the fox – in this case social media platforms – to guard the chicken coop is a foolish entreaty sure to fail.  Demanding they simply remove content that is illegal in real life should be an easy enough rule to implement without restricting the flow of information or prohibiting freedom of thought, opinion, and beliefs.


Read more from Sarah Cowgill or comment on this article.

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