Tag Archives: internet

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.

Mandating Fairness

Whenever one of my posts addresses America’s problem with disinformation, at least one commenter will call for re-institution of the Fairness Doctrine–despite the fact that, each time, another commenter (usually a lawyer) will explain why that doctrine wouldn’t apply to social media or most other Internet sites causing contemporary mischief.

The Fairness Doctrine was contractualGovernment owned the broadcast channels that were being auctioned for use by private media companies, and thus had the right to require certain undertakings from responsive bidders. In other words, in addition to the payments being tendered, bidders had to promise to operate “in the public interest,” and the public interest included an obligation to give contending voices a fair hearing.

The government couldn’t have passed a law requiring newspapers and magazines to be “fair,” and it cannot legally require fair and responsible behavior from cable channels and social media platforms, no matter how much we might wish it could.

So–in this era of QAnon and Fox News and Rush Limbaugh clones– where does that leave us?

The Brookings Institution, among others, has wrestled with the issue.

The violence of Jan. 6 made clear that the health of online communities and the spread of disinformation represents a major threat to U.S. democracy, and as the Biden administration takes office, it is time for policymakers to consider how to take a more active approach to counter disinformation and form a public-private partnership aimed at identifying and countering disinformation that poses a risk to society.

Brookings says that a non-partisan public-private effort is required because disinformation crosses platforms and transcends political boundaries. They recommend a “public trust” that would provide analysis and policy proposals intended to defend democracy against the constant stream of  disinformation and the illiberal forces at work disseminating it. 
It would identify emerging trends and methods of sharing disinformation, and would
support data-driven initiatives to improve digital media-literacy. 

Frankly, I found the Brookings proposal unsatisfactorily vague, but there are other, more concrete proposals for combatting online and cable propaganda. Dan Mullendore pointed to one promising tactic in a comment the other day. Fox News income isn’t–as we might suppose– dependent mostly on advertising; significant sums come from cable fees. And one reason those fees are so lucrative is that Fox gets bundled with other channels, meaning that many people pay for Fox who wouldn’t pay for it if it weren’t a package deal . A few days ago, on Twitter, a lawyer named Pam Keith pointed out that a simple regulatory change ending  bundling would force Fox and other channels to compete for customers’ eyes, ears and pocketbooks.

Then there’s the current debate over Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, with many critics advocating its repeal, and others, like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, defending it.

Section 230 says that “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” (47 U.S.C. § 230). In other words, online intermediaries that host or republish speech are protected against a range of laws that might otherwise be used to hold them legally responsible for what others say and do. The protected intermediaries include not only regular Internet Service Providers (ISPs), but also a range of “interactive computer service providers,” including basically any online service that publishes third-party content. Though there are important exceptions for certain criminal and intellectual property-based claims, CDA 230 creates a broad protection that has allowed innovation and free speech online to flourish.

Most observers believe that an outright repeal of Section 230 would destroy social networks as we know them (the linked article explains why, as do several others), but there is a middle ground between total repeal and naive calls for millions of users to voluntarily leave platforms that fail to block hateful and/or misleading posts.

Fast Company has suggested that middle ground.

One possibility is that the current version of Section 230 could be replaced with a requirement that platforms use a more clearly defined best-efforts approach, requiring them to use the best technology and establishing some kind of industry standard they would be held to for detecting and mediating violating content, fraud, and abuse. That would be analogous to standards already in place in the area of advertising fraud….

Another option could be to limit where Section 230 protections apply. For example, it might be restricted only to content that is unmonetized. In that scenario, you would have platforms displaying ads only next to content that had been sufficiently analyzed that they could take legal responsibility for it. 

A “one size fits all” reinvention of the Fairness Doctrine isn’t going to happen. But that doesn’t mean we can’t make meaningful, legal improvements that would make a real difference online.

 

The Next War

The extreme polarization America is experiencing is, as many have noted, more than just political. People–not just in the United States, but globally–seem to be choosing identities–tribes– that include but go well beyond partisan affiliations. 

It’s difficult to imagine how a “war” could be fought between these contending ideological forces, which overall tend to be rural versus urban in nature. Would Red rural inhabitants attack Blue cities, or vice-versa? How would that work? 

Rather than armies, will we see increasing acts of terrorism from gangs of Neo-Nazis, Incels, or self-identified “Patriot Militias”?

This admittedly strange mental exercise was triggered by a letter to Talking Points Memo. The writer worried that– between relief that Biden had won, and what he characterized as Trump’s “essential absurdity”– we are insufficiently prepared for what he fears will come next.

Specifically, I keep thinking back to Trump’s attempt to turn Lafayette Square into a mini version of Tiananmen, complete with importing troops from a far-off province (the Bureau of Prisons) to lay waste to the locals. It wasn’t that Trump hesitated, or Barr, or any of them — it was that the military leadership, ultimately and publicly, refused to play along. (The same leadership that Trump is now gutting with a month and a half to go in his presidency.)

Following Trump’s defeat we are seeing what I have rapidly come to think of as secession-in-place, which also applies to the greater Republican Party over the past fifteen years. The Tea Party wasn’t so much a domestic political movement as a psychic break in response to having a Black man in the White House, and since that moment the post-policy Republican Party has never retreated from that view. (In that context, Trump is the leader they were waiting for, not some charismatic fiend who led patriotic Republicans astray.)

What we’re watching is a percolating cold war which Trump keeps trying to ignite. The Republican base has checked out, Trump is leading them and shows no sign of faltering, and the Republican Party is almost entirely complicit and stands in silent support. And I see no way that this gets better no matter what Biden does over the next four years.

The most troubling part of these observations, at least to me, was the fact that they seem obviously and objectively correct. What part of this analysis can we dismiss as fanciful? Overblown? 

An essay from The Week, titled “The Hidden World War,” only added to those concerns.  

The author began by discussing earlier hopes for globalization–the once widely-held assumption that technological advances in communication and  transportation would lead to more open societies and improved cultural understanding globally. As he recognized, that didn’t happen–at least, not in the way it was envisioned. 

The recent shocks to both the international system and liberal expectations for the future haven’t turned back globalization entirely. They have revealed, instead, that the technological advances that were once considered a gateway to a more homogeneous world actually encourage and foster the creation of new, potent forms of cross-national solidarity and political conflict.

In other words, in much the same way that social media has allowed geographically-distanced like-minded people to forge alliances in the U.S., it has facilitated international right-wing alliances that cross national borders. Technology has made it possible–really, simple–for populists living in the mostly rural areas where such sentiments are strongest to link up with far-flung likeminded compatriots. The author argues that the internet has  galvanized anti-establishment movements around the world.

The American-focused far-right QAnon conspiracy theory has spread to countries around the world, including Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, France, Italy, Brazil, and Finland. Even more widespread have been kindred protests against COVID-19 restrictions, and especially mask mandates, in dozens of nations. Trump has even found expressions of support for his efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election on the streets of Tokyo.

The same cross-national affinities have occurred on the left. The bottom line?

Thanks to the flood of information and images flowing ceaselessly into the incredibly powerful compact computers we carry around with us everywhere we go, political and cultural identities, affinities, and animosities are now constantly being forged and activated on a global basis. Humanity is uniting and dividing in new ways that transcend national borders. 

Again, I find it difficult to argue with the analysis–and more difficult still to picture how this conflict will be waged, or how it will end.

And I have absolutely no idea what people of good will can do about it.

Hate Clicking

Welcome to the Resistance!

A few days ago, in a comment to this blog, Norris Lineweaver posted a link to an article from Medium, describing “hate clicking”--a mechanism employed primarily (at least, so far) by young, technically-savvy people, but available to everyone who has a computer. It falls into a category that Pew calls “digital disruption.”

The rest of the country got a hint of the possibilities when young people used their social media skills to artificially inflate the Trump campaign’s count of registrations for the Tulsa rally. The campaign flaunted the phony numbers, boasting that it reflected the President’s popularity–and vastly increasing media attention to the actual, pathetic turnout.

The article notes the Trump campaign’s expensive, aggressive online presence, and its enormous number of  paid online advertisements. It also points out that these ads aren’t really about soliciting votes; they are intended to generate data that can then be used for purposes of fundraising and merchandise sales. And as the author also reminds us, industry practice is generally to charge by the click. Each time an ad is clicked it costs the advertiser anywhere from a few pennies to a few dollars.

Here is where you come in. Every day (and up to a couple times a day) Google “Trump” or “Trump Store” or “MAGA Hat” or something similar and then click on the ad links. Look for the ones that say “Ad” next to them, those are the ones they are paying for.

If thousands of us do this a few times a day it will increase the campaign’s online ad spend while producing nothing of value for them. It is probably not helpful to refresh and click again more than a handful of times per day because online advertising platforms often filter out repetitive frequent clicks from the same computers and don’t bill for them.

The article then goes into considerable detail about the most effective ways to click and distort the data being gathered, while costing the campaign extra money.

There you have it. Easy peasy. As someone who’s spent a few days doing this, I can say that it feels good to throw a wrench in Trump’s historic investment in digital advertising. Yes, it does mean looking at it a bit more than I’d like, but the fact that it’s costing them money — that holy grail of human virtue from Trump’s point of view — makes it worthwhile.

The author cautions that this tactic is not intended to take the place of the other important ways to get involved in the upcoming election. He does not recommend “hate clicking” as a replacement for phone banking, voter registration, or donating money–as he says, It’s not either/or. It’s both/and.

But for those of us who feel angry and powerless when we read about Trump’s interminable assaults on competent government and the rule of law, the prospect of using the “down time” required by the pandemic to actually do something is a gift.

I still remember when–back at the dawn of the Internet Age–many of us thought the World Wide Web would improve democratic (small-d) participation. We failed to anticipate the extent to which this new medium would disseminate hate, misinformation and propaganda, and actually set back the cause of thoughtful democratic deliberation.

It has been very demoralizing.

This report on “hate clicking”–in addition to offering a tool for political action that I hadn’t previously considered–offers something else: a suggestion that, as the medium matures (along with a generation for which its possibilities are intuitive), it may fulfill at least part of that original promise.

For good or ill, it may increase participation.

Alex Jones And Donald Trump

One of the blogs I read regularly is Juanita Jean’s: The World’s Most Dangerous Beauty Parlor, Inc. “Juanita Jean” is really a Texan named Susan DuQuesnay Bankston. She’s a longtime Democratic activist in her part of Texas, and a wit who reminds me a lot of the late, great Molly Ivins.

Bankston’s husband and son are both lawyers (these things tend to run in families), and her son recently represented parents of children who were killed in the Sandy Hook massacre, in a suit against Alex Jones.

As many of you are probably aware, Alex Jones is a truly vile, probably crazy conspiracy theorist who spent years making life hell for those parents–telling his depressingly large and equally crazy audience that the massacre never happened, that it was a “false flag” operation conducted by the government, and that the parents were really actors. Followers of his constantly harassed and threatened the parents. Bankston sued Jones on their behalf and in a deposition, got Jones to admit that the massacre had been real and the children had actually been murdered.

Partly due to negative publicity generated by the lawsuit, Jones has been removed from the larger Internet platforms–Facebook, Twitter, etc.–although he evidently remains on the “dark web.”

These details are prologue: recently, Juanita Jean blogged that her son would be on an upcoming PBS Frontline show about Jones, The United States of Conspiracy. So I watched it.

You all need to watch it too. It explains a lot about ugliness and fear and hate, and where America is right now.

The fact that someone like Jones–who certainly seems visibly deranged, whether that’s a schtick or real–could amass literally millions of viewers (presumably equally deranged) is depressing enough. The danger posed by Jones’ devotees is very real; Frontline showed a video made by the listener who believed Jones’ “Pizzagate” conspiracy and proceeded to shoot up the pizza parlor where Hillary Clinton was supposedly running a child porn ring out of its (non-existent) basement. It showed him hyping several other, equally bizarre conspiracies–including 9/11 and Obama “truther” fabrications.

The really eye-opening revelation was the show’s documentation of the relationships between Jones, Roger Stone and Donald Trump. It is not too far-fetched to think that Jones’ exuberant embrace of candidate Trump–an embrace which included Trump’s appearances on Infowars and his public praise of Jones–resulted in thousands of votes Trump wouldn’t otherwise have received.

Jones’ audience of conspiracy-believers obviously form a significant part of Trump’s base–and while that explains some things, it’s also terrifying.

Far and away the most spine-curdling part of the documentary were the repeated instances in which Jones would be shown making a wild, unsupported and frequently bat-shit crazy statement–followed by a clip showing Trump echoing that statement.

We know that Trump doesn’t listen to Dr. Fauci (or any experts, for that matter). He does, quite obviously, listen to Alex Jones.

Anyone sane who has followed politics in the United States the past four years knows that Donald Trump is both appallingly ignorant and seriously mentally ill. We’ve seen that he can be receptive to conspiratorial theories. But it’s impossible to watch this Frontline presentation without realizing how much closer to the edge he is than most observers have recognized.

I also didn’t realize how many Americans aren’t just close to that edge, but well over it.

Watch it.