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‘Free speech’ or criminal front? Armslist, Ashley Madison and Silk Road blur legal and moral lines

Claims are emerging that Chattanooga shooting suspect Mohammod Youssuf Abdulazeez purchased three guns on Armslist.com.

Armslist bills itself as a firearms marketplace. A reasonable person might mistake this for an online gun store, one where users can easily and illegally obtain deadly weapons without those pesky (required) background checks.

Not so fast. Site owner Jonathan Gibbon “would like to make it clear that Armslist does not sell guns. Armslist offers a free speech forum.”

I’ve worked for several free speech forums, most notably Free Speech Debate and Index on Censorship. I like to consider RNS a free speech forum too. All offer platforms to discuss controversial ideas. None offer a marketplace for the illegal sale of weapons.

Armslist did not invent this “free speech forum” trope, nor is it the first company to deploy it with such brazen disregard for reality.

Craigslist

Screenshot of Craigslist website as it appeared on September 4, 2010, with black censored box in place of adult services.

In 2010, Craigslist “censored” the lucrative adult/erotic services section of its website after 17 state attorneys general said the service was being used to facilitate illegal sex trafficking and prostitution. Company executives cried “free speech.”

Silk Road, an anonymous black market for selling everything from illegal drugs to fake IDs,  launched in 2011. The FBI shut it down in 2013 and site founder Ross Ulbricht was sentenced to life in prison for his role in the criminal enterprise. Supporters cried “free speech.”

Did they have a point?

America’s Communications Decency Act and Digital Millennium Copyright Act offer guidelines for determining “intermediary liability,” that somewhat jargony term used to describe whether a web host or website can be held legally responsible for the actions of its users. Protections make sense when we’re talking about general communications platforms like Google, Facebook and Twitter (employees of these companies shouldn’t be arrested if users make death threats or solicit sex using their messaging services) but what about marketplace sites for illegal goods or services?

Section 230 of the CDA stops short of protecting criminal activity, putting Craigslist and Silk Road supporters on shaky ground. I’d argue the same is true for Armslist, even though a federal judge ruled in 2013 that Armslist “owes no duty to the general public to operate its website to control private individual users’ sale of handguns.”

Setting the legal question aside, these and other websites raise moral and ethical questions when flying the free speech flag, making them a target to more than just law enforcement officials.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Although legal, an overwhelming majority of Americans consider extramarital affairs to be morally unacceptable. Feds therefore have little reason to shut down Ashley Madison, a marketplace that boasts 38 million cheating partners. Enter the hackers.

Hacking collective The Impact Team has threatened to release all customer records including “secret sexual fantasies, nude pictures...real names, addresses, employee documents and emails” unless parent company Avid Life Media shuts down Ashley Madison and sister site Established Men, which it terms “a prostitution/human trafficking website for rich men to pay for sex.”

“Too bad for those men, they’re cheating dirtbags and deserve no such discretion,” the hackers wrote of site users in their manifesto. Snippets of personal data have already been leaked.

Ashley Madison has been blocked and banned in several countries but remains online and a self-avowed champion of free speech despite this latest threat.

Whether you think guns should be banned, prostitution decriminalized, cocaine made legal or cheaters exposed doesn’t change the current legality or illegality of these objects and acts. While I find many of these companies’ free speech arguments disingenuous and some flat out failing, others have obvious merit. Moral repulsion shouldn’t detract from our ability to maintain the rule of law.

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