Nathalie Graham's great piece on The Death of Tumblr is not just an important look at what can happen to a seemingly free corner of the internet when an obscure government regulation gets tweaked.
It's also a reminder of the priorities of the current Republican-controlled Congress.
As Nathalie notes, Tumblr's new and very broad ban on "adult content" likely traces to Congress's decision earlier this year to change a law that protected internet platforms from legal liability when users posted content that turned out to be related to sex trafficking.
Now, platforms from Tumblr to Facebook can be sued or prosecuted if they're used to facilitate certain sex crimes.
There's no shortage of concern about this federal law change and how it ends up affecting people who are definitely not sex traffickers. But the speed with which internet companies are now rushing to react (and overreact) to Congress's repeal of their sex trafficking immunity highlights an area in which Congress has been startlingly content to do nothing at all: paid online disinformation.
According to new reports prepared for the Senate Intelligence Committee, this kind of democracy-threatening online propaganda showed up on every major social media platform during the 2016 presidential election, overwhelmingly favored Donald Trump's presidential campaign, and had as one of its major aims the suppression of African-American voter turnout.
The Honest Ads Act, which would combat paid online propaganda efforts by forcing internet companies to be more transparent about the political ads they sell, has gone exactly nowhere in Congress even as the scale of the Russian influence operation to help Trump win in 2016 has become more and more clear.
Without playing the everyone-loses game of debating whether trafficked children is a more pressing national issue than the integrity of American presidential elections, we can now plainly see: one issue has led to action from this Congress, the other has not.
Interestingly, both issues connect to the same obscure federal provision, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996.
(Or, as Paul Blumenthal memorably described it, "The One Law That's the Cause of Everything Good and Terrible About the Internet.")
Internet platforms used to wield Section 230 as a shield against liability for user-generated content that promoted sex trafficking—until Congress took away their Section 230 immunity with respect to sex trafficking in April, setting off the current scramble to get into compliance.
But when it comes to political ads, Facebook, for example, is still free to claim Section 230 immunity from Washington state's tough political ad transparency law, as it did earlier this year. (In state court filings, Google has made the same immunity claim.)
Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson is now in court trying to force Facebook and Google to comply with a Washington law that's essentially a state-level version of the proposed "Honest Ads Act."
Congress could be more like Ferguson and use the law to force tech platforms to be more transparent about the political ads they sell.
Instead, for the last two years, it's chosen to sit on its hands.