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.