Tag Archives: accountability

Section 230

These are hard times for free speech advocates. The Internet–with its capacity for mass distribution of lies, misinformation, bigotry and incitement to violence–cries out for reform, but it is not apparent (certainly not to me) what sort of reforms might curb the dangers without also stifling free expression.

One approach is focused on a law that is older than Google: Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. 

What is Section 230? Is it really broken? Can it be fixed without inadvertently doing more damage? 

The law is just 26 words that allow online platforms to make rules about what people can or can’t post without being held legally responsible for the content. (There are some exceptions, but not many. )As a recent newsletter on technology put it (sorry, for some reason link doesn’t work),

If I accuse you of murder on Facebook, you might be able to sue me, but you can’t sue Facebook. If you buy a defective toy from a merchant on Amazon, you might be able to take the seller to court, but not Amazon. (There is some legal debate about this, but you get the gist.)

The law created the conditions for Facebook, Yelp and Airbnb to give people a voice without being sued out of existence. But now Republicans and Democrats are asking whether the law gives tech companies either too much power or too little responsibility for what happens under their watch.


Republicans mostly worry that Section 230 gives internet companies too much power to suppress online debate and discussion, while Democrats mostly worry that it lets those companies ignore or even enable dangerous incitements and/or illegal transactions. 

The fight over Section 230 is really a fight over the lack of control exercised by Internet giants like Facebook and Twitter. In far too many situations, the law allows people to lie online without consequence–lets face it, that high school kid who is spreading lewd rumors about a girl who turned him down for a date isn’t likely to be sued, no matter how damaging, reprehensible and untrue his posts may be. The recent defamation suits brought by the voting machine manufacturers were salutary and satisfying, but most people harmed by the bigotry and disinformation online are not in a position to pursue such remedies.

The question being debated among techies and lawyers is whether Section 230 is too protective; whether it reduces incentives for platforms like Facebook and Twitter to make and enforce stronger measures that would be more effective in curtailing obviously harmful rhetoric and activities. 

Several proposed “fixes” are currently being considered. The Times article described them.


Fix-it Plan 1: Raise the bar. Some lawmakers want online companies to meet certain conditions before they get the legal protections of Section 230.

One example: A congressional proposal would require internet companies to report to law enforcement when they believe people might be plotting violent crimes or drug offenses. If the companies don’t do so, they might lose the legal protections of Section 230 and the floodgates could open to lawsuits.

Facebook this week backed a similar idea, which proposed that it and other big online companies would have to have systems in place for identifying and removing potentially illegal material.

Another proposed bill would require Facebook, Google and others to prove that they hadn’t exhibited political bias in removing a post. Some Republicans say that Section 230 requires websites to be politically neutral. That’s not true.

Fix-it Plan 2: Create more exceptions. One proposal would restrict internet companies from using Section 230 as a defense in legal cases involving activity like civil rights violations, harassment and wrongful death. Another proposes letting people sue internet companies if child sexual abuse imagery is spread on their sites.

Also in this category are legal questions about whether Section 230 applies to the involvement of an internet company’s own computer systems. When Facebook’s algorithms helped circulate propaganda from Hamas, as David detailed in an article, some legal experts and lawmakers said that Section 230 legal protections should not have applied and that the company should have been held complicit in terrorist acts.


Slate has an article describing all of the proposed changes to Section 230.

I don’t have a firm enough grasp of the issues involved–let alone the technology needed to accomplish some of the proposed changes–to have a favored “fix” to Section 230.

I do think that this debate foreshadows others that will arise in a world where massive international companies–online and not– in many cases wield more power than governments. Constraining these powerful entities will require new and very creative approaches.

Speaking Of Accountability…

Here  are a couple of sobering statistics from The Brookings Institution:  A Black person is killed about every 40 hours by police, and Black people are 3.5 times more likely than white people to be killed by police when they are not attacking or do not have a weapon.

The research also  shows  that, typically, police officers aren’t charged in these killings of unarmed Black people, and even when they are, they are almost never convicted.

As the linked report notes,

In policing, people often talk about bad apples. Well, bad apples come from rotten trees, and the rotten trees are law enforcement agencies imbued with structural racism. Standard processes for holding police officers accountable, issuing civil payouts to victims of brutality, and rehiring fired officers are a few of the factors that contribute to the entrenchment of racism and police brutality.

The  report outlines some  of  the reasons for the  lack of accountability, and  makes two recommendations for improvement.  The first  recommendation is–or should be–obvious:  don’t rehire–or shuffle around– officers who have been fired for misconduct.  Those  officers should not be able to work in law enforcement again.

This recommendation is receiving bipartisan support at the federal level. It is part of Trump’s recent Executive Order and the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act that passed in the House of Representatives.

The second recommendation is one I  hadn’t previously encountered, and  as  a former Corporation Counsel who  supervised these payments, I  can tell you  that  it makes a lot of sense.  It  involves the restructuring of  compensatory payments. Currently, when a lawsuit  is brought alleging misconduct  by police, and that  lawsuit is either won by the plaintiff or settled,  payment of damages comes from the general funds of the city.  Brookings  advocates moving the source of  payment from taxpayer money to police department insurance policies.

We aren’t talking  about insignificant  funds. As  Brookings reports,

Eventually, there will be a large civil payout for the death of George Floyd. The Floyd family’s taxpayer money will be used to pay them for his dehumanization and killing. Due to qualified immunity—the legislation that often prevents officers from facing civil culpability—officers are typically immune from the financial impacts of these civil payouts. Since 2010, St. Louis has paid over $33 million and Baltimore was found liable for about $50 million for police misconduct. Over the past 20 years, Chicago spent over $650 million on police misconduct cases. In one year from period from July 2017 through June 2018, New York City paid out $230 million in about 6,500 misconduct cases. What if this money was used for education and work infrastructure? Research suggests that crime would decrease.

The report cites parallels:  In health care, for example, physicians and hospitals carry malpractice insurance. Even if the city  uses  taxpayer funds to cover the police department’s malpractice insurance premium, there are  real benefits to this approach; for one thing,  if the city’s malpractice premium goes up, the city will get valuable information  about which police officers, like which physicians and which hospitals, are responsible.

These proposals merit consideration. Another big  step forward would be the amendment  or elimination of the doctrine of qualified immunity, which I wrote  about  last  month.

Thanks to the  ubiquity  of cellphone cameras, well-meaning Americans can  no longer tell themselves that all police officers are “good guys” and anyone reporting brutality or other lawless behavior must  have deserved it. We’ve seen too much. On  the other  hand, it  is really important that we restore respect  for law enforcement, and for the officers who are following the rules and doing a  dangerous job in order  to  keep communities safe. We won’t restore that respect and encourage co-operation with law enforcement until there are structural changes that remove the “safe harbors” exploited by the bad  apples who   undeniably exist.

These approaches are worth considering–as are the suggestions for relieving police of duties more  logically discharged by social workers and/or medical personnel. (Whoever decided to label that proposed shift of responsibilities “defunding police” should be banned from engaging in any policy debate ever again…)

 

Reich’s Rules

What American politicians call privatization has been a focus of much my academic work.(If you go to the “Academic papers” section of this blog and search for privatization, you’ll find a lot of entries.)

I phrase it as “what American politicians call privatization” because–as Morton Marcus pointed out to me years ago– genuine privatization is what Margaret Thatcher did in England. She sold off government-owned assets like railroads and steel mills to the private sector, after which they were private. They paid taxes, and either prospered or failed, but government no longer had much to do with them.

What Americans call “privatization” is very different. The accurate term is “contracting out” –and it refers to the decision by government agencies to provide government services through for-profit or non-profit surrogates. That process should not be confused with procurement–no one expects city hall to manufacture its own computers or the myriad other items it requires in order to function. (Admittedly, the line can get blurry: contracting with a private paving company to fill potholes, for example. But few privatization critics are troubled by those long-standing practices.)

It is important to recognize that when a government agency contracts with a surrogate to provide services that the agency is legally required to provide, government remains legally responsible for the proper delivery of those services.

Robert Reich recently enumerated five rules that should govern these decisions. His rules are very similar to those on my class lecture on the subject.  It should be obvious, for example, that government shouldn’t contract out when keeping a service in-house will be more efficient and cost-effective.

Other rules are less obvious, but no less important.

  • Don’t privatize when the purpose of the service is to bring us together – reinforcing our communities, helping us connect with one another across class and race, linking up Americans who’d otherwise be isolated or marginalized.

 This is why we have a public postal service that serves everyone, even small rural communities where for-profit private carriers often won’t go. This is why we value public education and need to be very careful that charter schools and other forms of so-called school choice don’t end up dividing our children and our communities rather than pulling them together.

  • Don’t privatize when the people who are supposed to get the service have no power to complain when services are poor.

 This is why for-profit prison corporations have proven again and again to violate the constitutional rights of prisoners, and why for-profit detention centers for refugee children at the border pose such grave risks.

  • Don’t privatize when those who are getting the service have no way to know they’re receiving poor quality.

 The marketers of for-profit colleges, for example, have every incentive to exploit young people and their parents because the value of the degrees they’re offering can’t easily be known. Which is why non-profit colleges and universities have proven far more trustworthy.

  • Don’t privatize where for-profit corporations face insufficient competition to keep prices under control.

 Giant for-profit defense contractors with power over how contracts are awarded generate notorious cost overruns because they’re accountable mainly to their shareholders, not to the public.

Perhaps the most troubling contracting practices involve the military; contract soldiers are uncomfortably similar to mercenaries, and the growing use of private companies in America’s  various wars and military actions generates a number of very thorny issues, a topic I’ve explored elsewhere.

One of America’s many overdue conversations should address what services we expect  our various levels of government to provide and the nature and extent of the evidence needed to support a decision to outsource service delivery.

 

 

 

Limiting Power

Credit where credit is due: not only has the Trump administration rekindled civic engagement (scholars tell us that the number of people on the streets protesting exceeds the number who protested the Vietnam War), but his accidental ascension to the Presidency has highlighted the need to revisit constitutional provisions that no longer serve their intended purposes.

The problem, of course, is that We the People are too divided and too historically and civically illiterate to be trusted with the task of constitutional revision.

When–and if–the time ever comes that we are capable of making careful revisions to our foundational document, there are a number of issues to consider. The most obvious, of course, is the Electoral College, but there are also several aspects of federalism that should be reconsidered in light of contemporary technology and transportation. For example, there is no reason elections should continue to be administered by the states. A national, nonpartisan agency could maintain a national registration database, ensure standardized procedures and hours, and dramatically curtail partisan game-playing of the sort we’ve seen in Georgia and the incompetence Hoosiers experienced in Porter County, Indiana.

There is an even more significant assumption that we  need to re-think.

The American Constitution limits the power of the state. It was written at a time when governments were the entities wielding the most power, and focusing on the state made sense because constraining power was the whole point. The protection of personal autonomy–our individual right to direct our own lives, so long as we don’t harm the person or property of others and so long as we are willing to let others do the same–was the goal, and it required restraints on power.

I thought about that when I read this article from Common Dreams. Today, many governments are less powerful than multi-national corporations.

As corporations in the United States and around the world continue to reap record profits thanks to enormous tax cuts, widespread tax avoidance schemes, and business-friendly trade and investment policies, an analysis by Global Justice Now (GJN) published Wednesday found that the world’s most profitable companies are raking in revenue “far in excess of most governments,” giving them unprecedented power to influence policy in their favor and skirt accountability.

Measured by 2017 revenue, 69 of the top 100 economic entities in the world are corporations, GJN found in its report, which was released as part of an effort to pressure the U.K. government to advance a binding United Nations treaty that would hold transnational corporations to account for human rights violations.

“When it comes to the top 200 entities, the gap between corporations and governments gets even more pronounced: 157 are corporations,” GJN notes. “Walmart, Apple, and Shell all accrued more wealth than even fairly rich countries like Russia, Belgium, Sweden.”

As difficult as it can be to subject governments to the rule of law, constitutions and legal systems do provide mechanisms to hold them accountable.  By contrast, it is incredibly difficult for citizens to hold powerful corporations to account.  Increasingly, as the article notes, trade and investment deals allow corporations to demand that governments do their bidding rather than the other way around.

“From a coal mine in Bangladesh that threatens to destroy one of the world’s largest mangrove ecosystems to hundreds of people at risk of displacement from a mega-sugar plantation in Sri Lanka, corporations and big business are often implicated in human rights abuses across Asia” and the world, Friends of the Earth Asia Pacific noted in a blog post on Wednesday, describing the U.N. treaty as a potential “game-changer.”

“Companies are able to evade responsibility by operating between different national jurisdictions and taking advantage of corruption in local legal systems, not to mention the fact that many corporations are richer and more powerful than the states that seek to regulate them,” Friends of the Earth concluded. “We must right this wrong.”

The question, of course, is how?

It is becoming increasingly clear that massive reforms to global law and governance will be required if human liberty is to survive the changes that increasingly confront us. Given the numbers of people who have an overwhelming fear of change and who respond by embracing tribalism and autocracy, the odds of a successful “reboot” look pretty daunting.

Putting Profits Before People

It is really, really difficult to mount effective opposition to even the stupidest, craziest policies of the Trump Administration, because there are so many of them. From the environment to the social safety net to the rule of law, the attacks just keep coming.

So if you haven’t heard about the variety of ways in which Betsy DeVos is protecting her for-profit pals while screwing over taxpayers, students and public schools, that’s unfortunate but entirely understandable.

Lest Betsy get buried in this administration’s growing mountain of excrement, let me share one  decision that highlights her priorities–priorities that perfectly align with those of her fellow Trumpian plutocrats.

Courtesy of the Brookings Institution, we learn

On a Friday in mid-August, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos quietly announced that she would abolish the Obama administration’s gainful employment (GE) regulation–a safeguard that protected students from for-profit career programs that left graduates with poor job prospects and unmanageable student debt.

Her decision means that hundreds of thousands of our nation’s students–chiefly minority students, single moms, veterans, dislocated workers, and working adults–will now be trapped in low-performing for-profit programs and burdened with unaffordable and often life-limiting debts. Her regulatory rollback marks a betrayal not only of our nation’s most vulnerable students, but an abandonment of traditional conservative principles about institutional accountability for taxpayer dollars.

You have to read this jaw-dropping description of how the Department of Education “oversees” for-profit institutions to see just how far this purportedly “conservative” administration has strayed from what used to be bedrock conservative dogma.

To see just how extreme Secretary DeVos’s departure is from conservative principles, we ask this litmus test question: What would it take for a career education program to lose its eligibility for federal student aid under Secretary DeVos’s plan? The answer: A for-profit institution cannot lose its financial lifeline, no matter how poorly it performs its statutory mission to train students for gainful employment in a recognized occupation. One hundred percent of students can drop out of their career program, or not a single graduate could land a job in their field of training, and still the federal government would be willing to keep the taxpayer money pipeline of federal student loans and Pell Grants flowing unabated to the school. It’s a federal free-money plan—“accountability” stripped of consequences.

When I characterize DeVos’ approach as a departure–a U turn!– from what used to be GOP orthodoxy, I’m not exaggerating. In my wildest imagination, I never thought I would point to Bill Bennett–a blowhard I detested–as an example of “doing it right.” (But then, I wouldn’t have believed that I would look back at George W. Bush with something close to fondness, either…)

Bennett, as most of you probably remember, headed up DOE under Saint Ronald Reagan.

When he realized that numerous for-profit colleges were performing abysmally, he proposed new regulations that forced more than 2,000 postsecondary institutions to immediately face a hearing to determine whether their default rate on federal student loans was over 20%. If it was, their participation in federal student aid programs was limited, suspended, or terminated. Bennett especially blasted shoddy trade school programs, calling their “pattern of abuses” “an outrage.”

Then there was Lamar Alexander, also a Republican. He spearheaded the 1992 amendments to the Higher Education Act (HEA), under which postsecondary institutions lost their eligibility for federal student aid if their student default rates exceeded 25 percent for three consecutive years. By 2000, more than a thousand postsecondary schools lost their eligibility–and more than 80% of them were for-profit.

When a political party reverses its longstanding position on an issue, the obvious question is why.

The first and most important cause of the Republican retreat from accountability is the growing power of the for-profit college lobby. By 2005, the eight largest for-profit college chains had a combined market value of $26 billion. For-profit colleges, which always had aggressive lobbying operations, started donating much more money to congressional representatives and switched more of their giving from Democrats to Republican lawmakers. When the Obama administration released its final GE rule, the for-profit lobby donated twice as much to Republican lawmakers ($1.17 million) as to Democratic lawmakers ($583,000).

You really need to read the entire report. And weep.