No, Revoking Section 230 Would Not 'Save Democracy'

from the what-is-wrong-with-you-people? dept

Steven Hill, the former policy director with the Center for Humane Technologies -- the non-profit that everyone seems to look to as some sort of knowledgeable source on "anti-Big Tech" talking points -- has come out with one of the most ridiculous op-eds regarding Section 230. And I say that as someone who seems to wade through a dozen or so terrible Section 230 op-eds every day. The title alone, should already make you nervous, but honestly this piece is so bad, so wrong, and so disconnected from reality, it completely undermines the Center for Humane Technology's credibility, even though this guy is no longer associated with them.

The piece is titled: Biden should revoke Section 230 before we lose our democracy, which is just bizarre framing, but I'm open-minded enough to give any piece about Section 230 at least a chance to make its arguments.

Of course, it starts off on the wrong foot since, you know, Biden literally cannot revoke Section 230. That's not how any of this works. You'd think that at least someone would point out that the President doesn't get to just revoke laws that Congress passed and were signed into law. That's just not how any of it works. But... maybe it's just a clueless editor at the Chicago Tribune and the article itself is better... Or maybe not.

The 1st half of the article is basically one long "correlation / not causation" error. It talks about how we now have big internet companies and before we didn't -- and now we also have Trumpism, and before we didn't. Ergo, the theory goes, big tech is somehow responsible for Trumpism. There is not even any attempt to logically connect the two, it's just stated as if it's obvious:

Since the birth of the Big Tech media platforms 15 years ago, democracies around the world have been subjected to a grand experiment: Can a nation’s news and information infrastructure, which is the lifeblood of any democracy, be dependent on digital technologies that allow a global free speech zone of unlimited audience size, combined with algorithmic (nonhuman) curation of massive volumes of mis/disinformation, that can be spread with unprecedented ease and reach?

The evidence has become frighteningly clear that this experiment has veered off course, like a Frankenstein monster marauding across the landscape.

Hill seems totally unaware that we've gone through other periods in history in which nationalists/fascists/populists have become popular and taken over countries. I don't remember social media being to blame for Europe in the 1930s, but maybe I missed it in my history books.

But, even if this was accurate (and it's not), it's still not clear Section 230 has anything to do with any of this (because it doesn't, even in this fantasy world in which social media is responsible for Trumpism/nationalism). The connection to 230, like his connection between social media and growing nationalism is just some random weak correlation bullshit: these companies like Section 230, ergo, any bad things I think have come from these companies, must be the fault of Section 230.

Notably, of course, the essay makes no effort to engage with what problem he's actually trying to solve other than hand-wavey "threats to democracy," nor any attempt to explore how Section 230 works or what role it has here. It just seems to assume that if you removed Section 230, these non-defined problems would be fix.

It is time to push reset in a major way. President Joe Biden should start by revoking Section 230 of 1996′s Communications Decency Act. That’s the law that grants Big Tech Media “blank check” immunity for the mass content that is published and broadcast across their platforms. Revoking Section 230 is not a perfect solution, but it would make these companies somewhat more responsible, deliberative and potentially liable for the worst of their toxic content, including illegal content. Just like traditional media is liable.

No, Steven, that's not how any of this works. They would be "liable" for what, exactly? What is illegal about "toxic" content? What toxic content violates the law, that would somehow make the platforms liable? What is the actual cause of action? He doesn't answer that because the answer is none, whatsoever.

Also it's an ignorant fool's pipedream to believe that removing Section 230 would make companies "more responsible" or "deliberative." How do I know? Because unlike Steven, I actually study this stuff, and look at other areas of the law and the world where they don't have Section 230. For example, even in the US, we already have the DMCA for copyright, which has a regime (notice-and-takedown) that is what most people assume would develop in a world absent Section 230. And how's that working out? Do we see platforms dealing with user-generated content being "more responsible and deliberate" regarding copyright claims?

[insert uproarious laughter here]

No, of course not. What we have instead are companies who are quick to pull down all sorts of perfectly legitimate content to avoid any threat of liability. They practically knock themselves over to takedown content. And studies have shown that a huge number of DMCA takedowns are abusive and not about legitimate copyright claims. Remove 230 and we'll get a lot more of that, and a huge amount of stifling of perfectly fine speech based on a legalistic heckler's veto.

Why do newspapers like the Chicago Tribune let people who clearly have no understanding of this issue write op-eds for them?

Of course, immediately after that Hill recognizes that it wasn't social media that incited the mob to invade the Capitol, but the President, and admits that his own proposed solution is really kinda... not going to help.

But let’s be clear: Some of the worst past outrages would not likely be affected by 230′s revocation. While President Donald Trump’s inciting speech to the mob about a stolen election was false and provocative, other media outlets publish untrue nonsense all the time. It would be difficult to prove legally that any particular individuals or institutions were harmed or motivated by the president’s many outrageous statements.

So revoking Section 230 will likely not have as much impact as its proponents wish or its critics fear.

So then why did you write a whole essay calling for the revocation when you admit it won't actually work?

Then he switches arguments, like he's a Twitter troll and people have called him out for not knowing what he's talking about. Instead of talking about 230, he jumps to another dumb argument: that internet companies should be regulated like public utilities.

The Biden administration should treat these companies more like investor-owned utilities, as the U.S. previously did with telephone, railroad and power companies. (Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has suggested such an approach.)

As utilities, they would be guided by a digital license — just like traditional bricks-and-mortar companies must apply for various licenses and permits — that defines the rules and regulations of the business model according to a “duty of care” obligation, a kind of Hippocratic oath that says “first, do no harm.”

That... is also not how any of this works. First of all, utilities tend to have "must carry" rules, which would do the opposite of what Hill himself claimed was the reason we needed 230 in the first place! Second of all, the entire point of having utilities is when you have natural monopolies over commodity style, non-differentiated products. That's not true of social media. Third, if they were regulated by the government in the manner that Hill seems to want, you'd run into serious state actor problems, potentially making any "duty of care" obligations to be subject to a 1st Amendment analysis, meaning that all of the speech Hill wants them to take down to "protect democracy" would have to be left up because it's mostly protected by the 1st Amendment.

This isn't just an ignorant argument from someone who doesn't understand the issues. It's a self-contradicting one!

And then he totally shifts arguments again!

One abuse that is ripe for stricter rules is “data grabs” of users’ personal info. These companies never asked for permission to start sucking up our private data, or to track our physical locations, or mass collect every “like,” “share” and “follow” into psychographic profiles of each user that can be targeted and manipulated by advertisers and bad political actors. The platforms started that sneaky practice secretly, forging their destructive brand of “surveillance capitalism.”

Surveillance capitalism! Drink! So he's gone from a "they've allowed bad people online" argument, to "they're a utility" argument (which contradicts the first argument) to now a privacy argument... which has nothing at all to do with Section 230.

Why would anyone ever trust this guy to opine on anything related to this subject?

These companies’ frequent outrages against our humanity are supposedly the price we must pay for being able to post our summer vacation and new puppy pics to our “friends,” or for political dissidents and whistleblowers to alert the world to their just causes. Those are all important uses, but the price paid is very high. We can do better.

I think the Chicago Tribune can do a lot better and maybe find someone who actually knows what they're talking about to opine on this stuff?

Though, at least, the paper did juxtapose this utter dumpster fire of an op-ed with a much better one from Will Duffield talking about the dangers of repealing Section 230, but it's stunning that the first one made it to print at all.

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Filed Under: democracy, joe biden, privacy, section 230, steven hill
Companies: center for humane technologies

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  1. This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    Anonymous Coward, 30 Jan 2021 @ 11:40pm

    Try insulting writers for the NYT yeah that'll work

    Platforms do nothing? Sue the original author? Looks like Masnick's on the wrong side of history here.

    One person having a meme video taken down for a week is heinous, but THIS is just acceptable damage for Section 230:

    If it were MIKE MASNICK rather than the subject of this article he'd understand very quickly what was going on. We also need punishment for those who ACT on search-engine defamation. There's another legal angle no one has thought of that can definitely put a stop to this (it's not defamation law again).

    From the article:

    "Google results are often the first impression a person makes. They help people decide whom to date, to hire, to rent a home to. Mr. Babcock worried that his family’s terrible Google search profiles could have serious repercussions, particularly for his 19-year-old nephew and his 27-year-old cousin, both just starting out in life."

    People who inflict these "repercussions" need some of their own, legally speaking.

    "He and members of his extended family reported the online harassment to police in England and Canada, where most of them lived. Only the British authorities appeared to take the report seriously; a 1988 law prohibits communications that intentionally cause distress. An officer with the local Thames Valley police told Mr. Babcock to gather the evidence, so he and his brother-in-law, Luc Groleau, who lives outside of Montreal, started cataloging the posts in a Google document. It grew to more than 100 pages."

    Since they try to drive people to suicide in some cases or base their hate on disability (perceived or real) that's a hate crime in much of America.

    "this was her official work portrait from 1990, when she worked in a Re/Max real estate office the Babcock family owned"

    "Mr. Babcock felt lightheaded. A memory came back to him: When his mother died in 1999, the family had received vulgar, anonymous letters celebrating her death. A neighbor received a typed letter stating that Mr. Babcock’s father “has been seen roaming the neighbourhood late at night and masturbating behind the bushes.” The Babcocks had suspected ****, who was the only person who had ever threatened them. (she denied making threats or writing the letters.)"

    Turns out she did this to a lawyer.

    "His brother-in-law, Mr. Groleau, contacted Ms. Wallis. She had represented a bank that foreclosed on two properties * owned in the early 2000s. Dozens of people had come under online attack: employees of the bank, lawyers who represented the bank, lawyers who represented those lawyers, relatives of those people and on and on. The attacks seemed engineered to perform well in search engines, and they included the victims’ names, addresses, contact information and employers. ( **** denies being the author of many of these posts.)"

    "A relative of one lawyer said she spent months applying for jobs in 2019 without getting any offers. The woman, who asked not to be named because she feared *****, said her bills piled up. She worried she might lose her home. Then she decided to apply for jobs using her maiden name, under which she hadn’t been attacked. She quickly lined up three interviews and two offers."

    Men don't have this option obviously.

    "For victims, these sorts of attacks “can literally end their life and their career and everything,” Ms. Zemel said."

    "In June 2020, Matthew Hefler, 32, the brother-in-law of a colleague of Ms. Wallis, became one of the latest targets. Mr. Hefler, who lives in Nova Scotia, is a historian who recently completed his Ph.D. in war studies. He is trying to find a teaching job. But anyone who searches for him online will encounter posts and images tarring him as a pedophile and “pervert freak.”

    "During multiple interviews in recent months, ***** refused to divulge much about herself. She told me she was worried about the impact of a New York Times article. “Anyone who Googles my name, this will come up, and I don’t want this to come up,” she said."

    "In 2009, Matt Cameron, a junior lawyer working with Ms. Wallis on the case, started getting calls and emails at the office from men interested in meeting for sex. Someone impersonating him had responded by email to raunchy Craigslist ads and given his contact information. (Metadata from those emails, filed in court, pointed to **'s involvement.)"

    "“I also see her as a victim here,” Dr. Essig added. “Tech companies have given her the power to do something that has really taken apart her life.”"

    "Gary M. Caplan is the lawyer for Ms. Wallis, Mr. Babcock and 43 others who have sued **** for defamation. One of those plaintiffs is Mr. Caplan’s brother, who came under attack after Mr. Caplan got involved in the case. There are another 100 or so people who have been targeted but aren’t plaintiffs. Over the last two years, there have been more than 12,000 defamatory posts, according to software that Mr. Babcock’s brother-in-law created to track new posts."

    "Many of the victims have tried to get tech companies to remove the abusive posts. Mr. Caplan said they have run headlong into American laws that protect American websites. There is Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. It says that publishing platforms aren’t liable for what their users publish, even if they moderate some content. (Section 230 has become a touchstone in politicians’ fight against Big Tech. Conservatives argue it enables companies like Facebook and Twitter to censor them. Liberals argue it allows the companies to host harmful content with impunity.) And under U.S. law, a foreign court generally can’t force an American website to remove content."

    Early last year, Judge Corbett found Ms. in contempt of court because she had written to another judge, violating the restrictions placed on her as a vexatious litigant. She was sentenced to 74 days in prison. While she was locked up, the online attacks slowed to a trickle. (The fact that they didn’t cease altogether might have been because some complaint sites take content from one another, a pattern of mimicry that can keep attacks flowing.) When she was released in March, they resumed. Ms. told me it wasn’t her.

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