Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Content carriers should not be liable

The liability held by content carriers is a long-simmering political battle that the general public would do well to be aware of. We face a clear choice between establishing some basic principles and rights versus turning over an increasingly important part of our lives to be divided up by moneyed interests.

A content carrier is any business that specializes in the delivery of information from one person to another. They include low-level delivery of data, such as Internet service, radio operators, and postal service. Increasingly, they include higher-level services that organize data, such as search engines (Google, Bing), video sharing (YouTube), special interest groups (, and classified ads (Craigslist, ebay). All of these services share the property that the business transmitting or organizing the data has no affiliation with the people and organizations posting data into the service.

The question is as follows. If someone posts something illegal on any of these services, who is liable?

A simple example is that a contractor might bill a client for more than they advertised. A tree remover mass-mails an advertisement saying they will remove trees for $100/tree. You hire them, they remove a single tree, and then they tell you the bill is $200. This tree guy has just committed false advertising.

If that advertisement goes through the postal mail, then no one is liable for the false advertising except the tree guy. A laundry list of enabling companies is not liable at all:

  • The company that xeroxed the fliers
  • The company that made the copy machines used to make the copies
  • The postmen who delivered the mail from the post office to each addressee
  • The postal service itself
  • The company that made the mailboxes
  • The company that made the software he wrote the fliers with
  • The company that made the computer that software runs on

Obvious, right? We punish the person who committed the crime.

Now consider the same situation if the communication is electronic. Suppose instead of a mass email, it was a web site that listed the false price. Look at all the different groups involved that someone or another is trying to make liable:

  • The web site hosting the web page, for allowing the content to go up.
  • The ISP of the guy who posted the bad advertisement, for failing to cut him off.
  • The ISP of the web hosting service, for letting the web service stay online.
  • The ISP of the individuals who encountered the web site, because they did not filter out the bogus site.

We should stick to our principles and say no to all of this nonsense. Content carriers should emphatically not be liable for policing the content. The police work easily overwhelms the work needed to do the job properly, thus shutting down advanced content carriers in their infancy. Just as bad, we end up with a society where everyone is the police, and they are all policing each other all the time. It's the electronic equivalent of having postal mail opened before it is delivered.

Charging the person who perfomed the crime is plenty. We don't sue the postman for carrying false advertising, and nor should we sue Craiglist when a "woman" turns out to be a transexual. Whenever it's not possible to catch the guy that actually did the crime, let's not waste our time going after the content carriers. They are bringing us into a new era of human society, and they can't do it if they also have to be a police force.

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