Well, it was depressing.
No one should expect anything of value to emerge from these Congressional committee hearings. They are not designed for this. These tech CEOs have had between six and 16 years of practice, to say nothing controversial, trained by the best lawyers money can buy. The endless panel of politicians usually didn’t ask probing questions, but instead went wild and delighted with things they often didn’t seem to be doing. understand.
Broadly speaking, the audience aimed to cover the role of social media in promoting extremism, but the subtext was to see if these social platforms still deserved legal protections. Section 230 (s230) is a general immunity granted to websites that host content produced by other people. In (very) simple terms, you cannot, as a platform, be held responsible for the content that someone posts on your site that you did not know about. Basically it doesn’t matter what users write, Facebook will not be held responsible.
The time for self-regulation is over. It’s time for us to legislate to hold you accountable. – Representative Frank Pallone
Fortunately, we don’t need yesterday’s audience to understand what Facebook, Google, and Twitter are thinking. The real meat was in the opening statements released the day before the hearing. Of course, it takes a certain measure of Kremlinology to dissect exactly what is being said, but the CEOs’ responses are revealing nonetheless.
Zuckerberg rightly says that people argue “for conflicting reasons – that the law does more harm than good”. (This is essentially because it’s the only legal protection that benefits Big Tech rather than the business community in general, so it’s the only direct weapon of lawmakers beyond drafting new laws. ) He calls for Congress to make s230 protection “conditional on companies’ ability to adhere to best practices in combating the spread of such content,” adding that “platforms should be required to demonstrate that they have systems to identify illegal content and remove it. “
Essentially, you only get s230 protection if you have robust moderation tools and policies. He adds that “platforms should not be held responsible if particular content escapes detection,” which is “impractical for platforms with billions of posts per day.” In order to talk about adequacy, Zuckerberg recommends something that Facebook is relying on more and more these days. “The definitions of an adequate system could be commensurate with the size of the platform and set by a third party”, a body that ensures that “the practices are fair and clear for businesses to understand”.
The takeaway from today’s audience is that platforms need to do a lot more to tackle harmful information, but they can’t moderate at all because they have to be platforms. neutral forms that exercise no editorial discretion.
– Jeff Kosseff (@jkosseff) March 25, 2021
Of course, the system Zuckerberg advocates is essentially the status quo, at least for the social network itself. He can already to prove that he has a system in place to identify illegal content, and his own third party, the Facebook Oversight Board, to which he could refer such constitutional questions. What this rule change would do, however, is potentially rule out any challengers looking to set up a rival social platform.
Professor Jeff Kosseff, a Section 230 expert and author of the book The twenty-six words that created the Internet, said in an interview with Engadget early last year about s230 reform that weakening these protections may even be good for Facebook. “There are other platforms,” he said, “and Facebook is unlikely to be so harmed by the repeal.” Facebook is big enough and wealthy enough to both cope with the wave of early litigation and has a substantial moderation platform.
What it will do, however, is force rival platforms – which may not have the resources available to a company with nearly $ 29 billion in annual profits – to wage wars on many fronts. Last year, Kosseff set the example of Yelp, saying that if a restaurant gets a one-star review, under s230, it has nothing to do. If, however, the aggrieved restaurateur is involved, Yelp will have to either take it to court (a costly and time-consuming ordeal) or remove the notice (thus reducing its usefulness). A cynic would, at this point, like to mention that Facebook has its own restaurant listings, which host their own reviews.
Sundar Pichai, meanwhile, is the only CEO to vote in favor of the s230 as it currently stands, without any changes. This is probably due to the fact that Google is able to escape much of the criticism that Facebook receives due to the way its ownership of YouTube is structured. Granted, most of the questions to YouTube on Thursday were about its Kids product, rather than its content moderation. (Earlier this week The Washington Post asked why Susan Wojcicki, CEO of YouTube, was not facing more regulatory scrutiny given YouTube’s role in disseminating conspiracy theories and extremist content more generally.)
At Thursday’s hearing, Dorsey let her frustration show more than any of her counterparts. He treated the proceedings with some contempt and, as it went, made less effort to hide his feelings. Dorsey’s answers appeared as if he sensed that many of the questions being asked were below him. It wasn’t helped by the fact that the CEO was Tweeter during the hearing, and I liked several responses that criticized the committee’s questions. At one point he said, “I don’t think we should be the arbiters of the truth”, before adding bluntly that he “didn’t think the government should be either”.
Dorsey’s statement is the only one not to mention the s230 by name or to make a proposal for its reform. His interest has shifted to Bitcoin, Blockchain, and decentralization more generally, so perhaps he no longer sees the value of US law. His Blue sky project essentially places the power of the platform in the hands of its users and others who want to get involved. This means that Twitter has less of a need to find an acceptable way to reform s230, as it seeks to create something entirely separate.
You might suggest that each company’s statement on the s230 reflects their overall values and attitude. Facebook wants to change the law to potentially weaken its competition, Google is hoping it won’t rock the boat, but won’t scream too loudly for the status quo, when Twitter is already mentally elsewhere. Unfortunately for Zuckerberg, Pichai and Dorsey, neither of these positions is likely to satisfy politicians who understand something needs to change, but don’t know what.