Tag Archives: Facebook

Regulating Facebook et al

Over the past few years, as my concerns about the media environment we inhabit have grown, I have found Tom Wheeler’s columns and interviews invaluable. Wheeler–for those of you unfamiliar with him– chaired the Federal Communications Commission from 2013 to 2017, and is currently both a senior fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School Shorenstein Center and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution.

He’s also a clear writer and thinker.

In a recent article for Time Magazine, Wheeler proposes the establishment of a new federal agency that would be empowered to regulate Internet giants like Facebook. He began the article by noting Mark Zuckerberg’s apparent willingness to be regulated–a willingness expressed in advertisements and testimony to Congress. As he notes, however,

A tried-and-true lobbying strategy is to loudly proclaim support for lofty principles while quietly working to hollow out the implementation of such principles. The key is to move beyond embracing generic concepts to deal with regulatory specifics. The headline on Politico’s report of the March 25 House of Representatives hearing, “D.C.’s Silicon Valley crackdown enters the haggling phase,” suggests that such an effort has begun. Being an optimist, I want to take Facebook at its word that it supports updated internet regulations. Being a pragmatist and former regulator, though, I believe we need to know exactly what such regulations would provide.

Wheeler proceeds to explain why he favors the creation of a separate agency that would be charged with regulating “big Tech.” As he notes, most proposals in Congress would give that job to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Wheeler has nothing negative to say about the FTC but points out that the agency is already “overburdened with an immense jurisdiction.” (Companies have even been known to seek transfer of their oversight to the agency, believing that such a transfer would allow its issues to get lost among the extensive and pressing other matters for which the agency is responsible.) Furthermore,  oversight of digital platforms “should not be a bolt-on to an existing agency but requires full-time specialized focus.”

So how should a new agency approach its mission?

Digital companies complain (not without some merit) that current regulation with its rigid rules is incompatible with rapid technology developments. To build agile policies capable of evolving with technology, the new agency should take a page from the process used in developing the technology standards that created the digital revolution. In that effort, the companies came together to agree on exactly how things would work. This time, instead of technical standards, there would be behavioral standards.

The subject matter of these new standards should be identified by the agency, which would convene industry and public stakeholders to propose a code, much like electric codes and fire codes. Ultimately, the agency would approve or modify the code and enforce it. While there is no doubt that such a new approach is ambitious, the new challenges of the digital giants require new tools.

Wheeler proceeds to outline how the proposed agency would approach issues such as misinformation and privacy, and to describe how it might promote and protect competition in the digital marketplace.

It’s a truism among policy wonks that government’s efforts to engage with rapidly changing social realities lag the development of those realities. The Internet has changed dramatically from the first days of the World Wide Web; the social media sites that are so ubiquitous now didn’t exist before 1997, and blogs like the one you are reading first emerged in 1999–a blink of the eye in historical terms. In the next twenty years, there will undoubtedly be digital innovations we can’t yet imagine or foresee. A specialized agency to oversee our digital new world makes a lot of sense.

I’m usually leery of creating new agencies of government, given the fact that once they appear on the scene, they tend to outlive their usefulness. But Wheeler makes a persuasive case.

And the need for thoughtful, informed regulation gets more apparent every day.

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.

Falsely Shouting “Fire” In The Digital Theater

Tom Wheeler is one of the savviest observers of the digital world.

Now at the Brookings Institution, Wheeler headed up the FCC during the Obama administration, and recently authored an essay titled “The Consequences of Social Media’s Giant Experiment.” That essay–like many of his other publications–considered the impact of legally-private enterprises that have had a huge public impact.

The “experiment” Wheeler considers is the shutdown of Trump’s disinformation megaphones: most consequential, of course, were the Facebook and Twitter bans of Donald Trump’s accounts, but it was also important that  Parler–a site for rightwing radicalization and conspiracy theories–was effectively shut down for a time by Amazon’s decision to cease hosting it, and decisions by both Android and Apple to remove it from their app stores. (I note that, since Wheeler’s essay, Parler has found a new hosting service–and it is Russian owned.)

These actions are better late than never. But the proverbial horse has left the barn. These editorial and business judgements do, however, demonstrate how companies have ample ability to act conscientiously to protect the responsible use of their platforms.

Wheeler addresses the conundrum that has been created by a subsection of the law that  insulates social media companies from responsibility for making the sorts of  editorial judgements that publishers of traditional media make every day. As he says, these 26 words are the heart of the issue: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

As he points out,

If you are insulated from the consequences of your actions and make a great deal of money by exploiting that insulation, then what is the incentive to act responsibly?…

The social media companies have put us in the middle of a huge and explosive lab experiment where we see the toxic combination of digital technology, unmoderated content, lies and hate. We now have the answer to what happens when these features and large profits are blended together in a connected world. The result not only has been unproductive for civil discourse, it also represents a danger to democratic systems and effective problem-solving.

Wheeler repeats what most observers of our digital world have recognized: these platforms have the technological capacity to exercise the same sort of responsible moderation that  we expect of traditional media. What they lack is the will–because more responsible moderating algorithms would eat into their currently large–okay, obscene– profits.

The companies’ business model is built around holding a user’s attention so that they may display more paying messages. Delivering what the user wants to see, the more outrageous the better, holds that attention and rings the cash register.

Wheeler points out that we have mischaracterized these platforms–they are not, as they insist, tech enterprises. They are media, and should be required to conform to the rules and expectations that govern media sources. He has other suggestions for tweaking the rules that govern these platforms, and they are worth consideration.

That said, the rise of these digital giants creates a bigger question and implicates what is essentially a philosophical dilemma.

The U.S. Constitution was intended to limit the exercise of power; it was crafted at a time in human history when governments held a clear monopoly on that power. That is arguably no longer the case–and it isn’t simply social media giants. Today, multiple social and economic institutions have the power to pose credible threats both to individual liberty and to social cohesion. How we navigate the minefield created by that reality–how we restrain the power of theoretically “private” enterprises– will determine the life prospects of our children and grandchildren.

At the very least, we need rules that will limit the ability of miscreants to falsely shout fire in our digital environments.

 

 

 

Information Silos And The First Amendment

The First Amendment contemplates and protects a “marketplace of ideas.” We have no precedent for an information environment in which there is no marketplace–no “agora” where different ideas and perspectives contend with each other for acceptance.

What we have instead are information “silos”–a column in the New York Times recently quoted Robert Post, a Yale professor, for the observation that people have always been crazy, but the internet has allowed them to find each other.

In those silos, they talk only to each other.

Social media has enabled the widespread and instantaneous transmission of lies in the service of political gain, and we are seeing the results. The question is: what should we do?

One set of scholars has concluded that the damage being done by misinformation and propaganda outweighs the damage of censorship. Rick Hasen, perhaps the most pre-eminent scholar of election law, falls into that category:

Change is urgent to deal with election pathologies caused by the cheap speech era, but even legal changes as tame as updating disclosure laws to apply to online political ads could face new hostility from a Supreme Court taking a libertarian marketplace-of-ideas approach to the First Amendment. As I explain, we are experiencing a market failure when it comes to reliable information voters need to make informed choices and to have confidence in the integrity of our electoral system. But the Court may stand in the way of necessary reform.

I don’t know what Hasen considers “necessary reform,” but I’m skeptical.

I have always been a First Amendment purist, and I still agree with the balance struck by the Founders, who understood that–as pernicious and damaging as bad ideas can be–allowing government to determine which ideas get voiced is likely to be much more dangerous. (As a former ACLU colleague memorably put it, “Poison gas is a great weapon until the wind shifts.”)

That said, social media platforms aren’t government. Like brick-and-mortar private businesses, they can insist on certain behaviors by their customers. And like other private businesses, they can and should be regulated in the public interest. (At the very least, they should be required to apply their own rules consistently. People expressing concern/outrage over Twitter’s ban of Trump should be reminded that he would have encountered that ban much earlier had he been an ordinary user. Trump had flouted Twitter and Facebook rules for years.)

The Times column suggests we might learn from European approaches to issues of speech, including falsehoods and hate speech. Hate speech can only be banned in the U.S. if it is intended to incite imminent violence and is actually likely to do so. Europeans have decided that hate speech isn’t valuable public discourse– that racism isn’t an idea; it’s a form of discrimination.

The underlying philosophical difference here is about the right of the individual to self-expression. Americans value that classic liberal right very highly — so highly that we tolerate speech that might make others less equal. Europeans value the democratic collective and the capacity of all citizens to participate fully in it — so much that they are willing to limit individual rights.

The First Amendment was crafted for a political speech environment that was markedly different than today’s, as Tim Wu has argued.  Government censorship was then the greatest threat to free speech. Today, those, including Trump, “who seek to control speech use new methods that rely on the weaponization of speech itself, such as the deployment of ‘troll armies,’ the fabrication of news, or ‘flooding’ tactics” that humiliate, harass, discourage, and even destroy targeted speakers.”

Wu argues that Americans can no longer assume that the First Amendment is an adequate guarantee against malicious speech control and censorship. He points out that the marketplace of ideas has become corrupted by technologies “that facilitate the transmission of false information.”

American courts have long held that the best test of truth is the power of an idea to get itself accepted in the competition that characterizes a marketplace. They haven’t addressed what happens when there is no longer a functioning market–when citizens  confine their communicative interactions to sites that depend for their profitability on confirming the biases of carefully targeted populations.

I certainly don’t think the answer is to dispense with–or water down– the First Amendment. But that Amendment was an effort to keep those with power from controlling information. In today’s information environment, platforms like Twitter, Facebook, etc. are as powerful and influential as government. Our challenge is to somehow rein in intentional propaganda and misinformation without throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Any ideas how we do that?

 

 

Elementary Ethics

Yesterday, I posted about generalized social trust–its importance, and some of the reasons for its recent decline. Today, I want to focus on the role played by ethical behavior–in this case, the lack of ethical behavior–in the distressing and accelerating erosion of social trust.

One of the most obvious ethical principles is avoidance of conflicts of interest. I believe it was John Locke who noted that a person (okay, back then he said “a man”) could not be the judge in his own case, and that is really the heart of the rule against conflicts. Elected officials are not supposed to participate in decisions that will affect them personally and directly.

If a state official approves a purchase of land for a highway, and that highway will run through land owned by members of his family, that’s a conflict of interest. If a United States Senator relies upon information not yet shared with the public to sell stock holdings before the news gets out, that’s a blatant conflict. (And yes, Senator Perdue, we’re all looking at you.) When a President refuses to divest himself of business interests that will be directly affected by his decisions in office, that’s a huge departure from ethical behavior.

It is hardly a secret that the Trump Administration has been brazenly unethical. Last year, Pro Publica noted that the administration itself had reported (quietly) numerous ethical breaches. The report noted that President Trump’s ethics pledge had been considerably weaker than previous pledges, but that the government ethics office found violations of even those watered-down rules, particularly at three federal agencies: the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of the Interior and the National Labor Relations Board.

Just one example: At the NLRB, Republican board member William Emanuel improperly voted on a case despite the fact that his former law firm, Littler Mendelson, represented one of the parties. (The firm represents corporations in labor disputes, and he also voted to eliminate regulations protecting unions.) Conflicts at the EPA have been widely covered by the media; numerous EPA officials chosen by Trump have come from fossil fuel companies and/or the law firms that represent them, and those officials have rolled back nearly 100 environmental regulations.

Then there’s former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who is being investigated by the Justice Department’s public integrity section over allegations he lied to his agency’s inspector general’s office. There are also two separate probes by the Department’s inspector general about Zinke’s ties to real estate deals in Montana and a proposed casino project in Connecticut. 

As for Trump, there is at least one lawsuit charging violations of the Emoluments Clause still working its way through the courts–although the current composition of the Supreme Court doesn’t bode well for the outcome. 

The White House has refused to impose any sanctions for officials found to have committed ethical violations. That–as observers have noted–has sent a message of tacit approval, not just to the officials violating ethical standards, but to citizens who are aware of the breaches.

It isn’t just government. Cable news companies and social media giants routinely behave in ways that violate both journalism ethics and strictures against conflicts of interest. Facebook employs a rightwing internet site, The Daily Caller, as a “fact checker” despite the fact that the site is supported financially by the GOP. A story originally published by Salon reports that “The Daily Caller has taken tens of thousands of dollars to help Republican campaigns raise money while performing political fact-check services for Facebook.”

The Caller, a right-wing publication co-founded by Fox News personality Tucker Carlson, has also since 2016 sent dozens of emails “paid for by Trump Make America Great Again Committee,” a joint fundraising vehicle shared by the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee, according to Media Matters.

Media Matters also revealed that The Daily Caller has sent sponsored emails on behalf of a number of Republican candidates this year. Media Matters posted screenshots of the emails, from Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C; Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio; the Senate Conservatives Fund; and the Bikers for the President PAC.

Asking the Daily Caller to fact-check political posts is like asking a wife-beater to evaluate spousal abuse cases.

When ethical principles are routinely flouted by a society’s most powerful institutions, is it any wonder that Americans don’t know who or what they can trust?