Reason Roundup

'See Something, Say Something Online Act' Punishes Big Tech for Not Snitching

Plus: Oregon decriminalizes hard drugs, Kroger closes stores over hazard pay rule, and more...

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A new bill revitalizes the war on terror's favorite slogan in service of forcing tech companies to turn over more user data to the government. The "See Something, Say Something Online Act," introduced by Sen. Joe Manchin (D–W.Va.) and co-sponsored by Sen. John Cornyn (R–Texas), is the latest attack on the federal communications law known as Section 230 as well as freedom of speech and online privacy.

The legislation says any interactive computer service provider—that means social media giants, small blogs, podcast hosting services, app stores, consumer review platforms, independent political forums, crowdfunding and Patreon-style sites, dating apps, newsletter services, and much more—will lose Section 230 protections if they fail to report any known user activity that might be deemed "suspicious."

"Suspicious" content is defined as any post, private message, comment, tag, transaction, or "any other user-generated content or transmission" that government officials later determine "commits, facilitates, incites, promotes, or otherwise assists the commission of a major crime." Major crimes are defined as anything involving violence, domestic, or international terrorism, or a "serious drug offense."

For each suspicious post, services must submit a Suspicious Transmission Activity Report (STAR) within 30 days, providing the user's name, location, and other identifying information, as well as any relevant metadata.

Those submitting the user surveillance reports would henceforth be barred from talking about or even acknowledging the existence of them. STARs would also be exempt from Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.

The bill, which comes amid renewed calls to stamp out domestic terrorism after the Capitol riot, is impressive in managing to be both completely invasive and utterly unconcerned with even appearing to be about protection, since the remedy—report within 30 days—would hardly help stop the commission of crimes. If we were talking about the Capitol riot, for instance, companies who still hadn't reported posts about it would be OK.

The bill would set up a massive new system of intense user monitoring and reporting that would lead to more perfectly innocent people getting booted from internet platforms. It would provide the government with a new tool to punish disfavored tech companies, and it would enlist all digital service providers to be cops in the failed post-9/11 war on terror and the drug war.

The bill states that some posts facilitating crimes require a STAR to be filed immediately, though it's vague about what these are (any "suspicious transmission that requires immediate attention" requires being reported immediately). The first example it provides is "an active sale or solicitation of sale of drugs."

A new federal agency would handle the suspicious activity reports—which could also be submitted by any individual, not just tech companies.

An easy, anonymous, online way for people to flag each other's social media accounts for the Department of Justice—what could go wrong? (Insert all the eye rolls here.)

Anyone with experience on social media now knows how hyperbolic people can be in describing threatening behavior, how gleeful folks can be in snitching on those they deem unenlightened, and how easy it can be for trolls, abusers, and other ne'er-do-wells to weaponize reporting systems against disliked individuals or marginalized groups. The See Something, Say Something Online Act would put this on steroids—all while ensuring such a glut of reports, including many that are frivolous, politically motivated, or otherwise disingenuous, that federal agents would still be searching for needles in haystacks.

Worse than simply overloading the system, it would make federal agents investigate all sorts of ordinary Americans for harmless comments. It also seems likely to make finding actual terrorists and violent criminals even more difficult.


FREE MINDS

Drug decriminalization takes effect in Oregon. Residents of the state voted in November to decriminalize small amounts of drugs including heroin, LSD, and meth. "Today, the first domino of our cruel and inhumane war on drugs has fallen, setting off what we expect to be a cascade of other efforts centering health over criminalization," Kassandra Frederique, executive director of Drug Policy Alliance, said in a statement, continuing:

For the first time in at least half a century, one place in the United States—Oregon— will show us that we can give people help without punishing them. This law is meant to protect people against persecution, harassment and criminalization at the hands of the state for using drugs and instead given access to the supports they need. Over the last year, we have been painfully reminded of the harms that come from drug war policing and the absence of necessary health services and other support systems in our communities. Today, Oregon shows us a better, more just world is possible.


FREE MARKETS

Kroger closes two grocery stores in Long Beach, California, after the city instituted a new hazard pay rule. "Kroger, which owns several supermarket chains, said Monday it would close two stores in Long Beach in response to city rules mandating an extra $4 an hour in 'hero pay' for grocery workers during the COVID-19 pandemic," reports the Los Angeles Times. The Ralphs and Food 4 Less stores that will be closed now employ about 200 people, it says.

Here's Kroger's statement:

This misguided action by the Long Beach City Council oversteps the traditional bargaining process and applies to some, but not all, grocery workers in the city. The irreparable harm that will come to employees and local citizens as a direct result of the City of Long Beach's attempt to pick winners and losers, is deeply unfortunate. We are truly saddened that our associates and customers will ultimately be the real victims of the city council's actions.

Other cities in California, including Los Angeles, Santa Monica, and Oakland, are considering hazard pay proposals similar to the one in Long Beach.


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