By Hanni Fakhoury
Believing that human trafficking is worsened by the internet’s anonymity, the sponsors of California’s Proposition 35 thought they had a simple solution to combatting the problem: require convicted traffickers to register as sex offenders. Then require all individuals on California’s sex offender registry to disclose their online identities and service providers.
The measure passed in the November election with 81 percent voter approval. This isn’t surprising, since Prop. 35 also increases criminal penalties for trafficking, uses criminal fines to fund victim services organizations, and mandates more law-enforcement training on human trafficking. But the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the ACLU of Northern California sued, challenging the constitutionality of the reporting requirements – and this Monday, a federal court will hear arguments about whether it should continue to block the measure’s implementation.
Because in its zeal to restrict free speech online for some, Prop. 35 actually restricts free speech for all.
In a way, making the legal arguments is going to be the easy part. The harder battle is convincing the hearts and minds of those who aren’t on the California sex offender registry to understand the implications of passing such laws. Especially if people believe that the EFF and ACLU, in fighting this measure, are defending pedophiles.
Challenging Prop. 35 isn’t about defending “pedophiles” – not everyone on the registry is a pedophile, let alone a sex trafficker. More importantly, challenging Prop. 35 is really about defending free speech online.
The government needs to keep its hands off internet speech, allowing the web to remain a place where ideas and expression can flow freely. Anonymous speech is an important First Amendment right, and has always been a way to promote a robust exchange of ideas – allowing people to speak their minds freely without worry about retaliation or societal isolation.