Friday, February 01, 2013
Could increasing downstream liability for gun companies indirectly affect Internet users some day?
The Washington Post has a front page story Friday February 1, 2013, about the downstream liability issue with respect to gun control. The report, by Tom Hamburger, Peter Wallsten and Sari Horwitz, is titled “2005 law frustrates shooting victims: NRA-backed measure shields firearms makers from liability suits”, link here
The online title is “NRA-backed federal limits on gun lawsuits frustrate victims, their attorneys”.
The article even mentions, by metaphor or analogy, the law that shields online service providers from downstream liability (Section 230), without naming it. But it says in general, legal protections from downstream liability are uncommon with most consumer products and services.
Could restoring liability present a slippery slope for the Internet, as libertarians would fear?
The article points out that liability law could be structured in terms of failing to meet “structurally” certain requirements, rather than in terms of blame for a particular death or injury. For example, one could imagine liability for failing to do the background check, selling a weapon made illegal, or not installing a required safety feature. That would not cause a “slippery slope problem.”
Still, there is a basic moral question about being one’s “brother’s keeper”. Should one person or company be “blamed” for a death that another party caused?
A similar question might exist regarding violent movies or videos. Are the filmmakers who gave us the Batman and Dark Knight movies partly “responsible” for the Colorado rampage? It could even exist with websites. Provocative writing, simply intellectual speculation in the minds of most people, when found on a website might give an unstable person “ideas”. That sort of thinking came into play when I was a substitute teacher with my own screenplay (as on the posting July 27, 2007). This would be an unacceptable greasy slope. The possibilities for imagining liability are endless.
But it is true that, on the Internet, this sort of tension over potential liability can occur particularly between those who do and who do not have children. That wouldn’t be as true in the gun control debate, where many people want the right (and believe they have the moral responsibility) to protect their families personally.
By the way, when reviewing the fine print of the terms of service on my own ISP, I found an “indemnification” clause, which not only would require holding the service provider “harmless”, but could allow the service provider to sue the customer in case that downstream liability was sought. Section 230 is supposed to make actual invocation of this kind of TOS provision very unlikely, which so far it has been.