April 27, 2021
Two members of Congress, Tom Malinowski and Anna Eshoo, took to the Washington Post today to promote their meaningless plan to attack social media profits in the name of protecting democracy (their terminology). The gist of their column is that they want to take away Section 230 protection for any social media company that has algorithms that “amplify content that contributes to an act of terrorism or to a violation of civil rights statutes meant to combat extremist groups.”
Just to remind folks, Section 230 gives Internet intermediaries special treatment that is denied to other media companies. While the New York Times or CNN could be sued for libelous ads or guest opinion pieces for material in a newspaper or broadcast on the airwaves, Section 230 means that Facebook could not be held libel for the same material. This means that someone could produce a bogus video, showing a person doing all sorts of horrible things that they did not actually do, pay Facebook millions to have it circulated to billions of people, and Facebook gets to pocket the cash with no liability.
But our brave members of Congress want to crack down on social media profits. So, first, we have to determine that its algorithms steer people to these bad groups or sites. Then of course we have to determine that the sites are in fact bad. I can assure you, that one will not be easy if you have not given it any thought.
It gets worse. Suppose that Facebook and other social media companies are quaking in their boots after Representatives Malinowski and Eshoo’s bill passes and then change their algorithms. Nothing in their bill, as described in their column, prevents Facebook from selling ads to hate groups to spread vile material to millions of specially targeted individuals. In other words, their bill does almost nothing to prevent Facebook from profiting from fostering the growth of hate groups.
To some of us, the big problem is that we have behemoths like Facebook and Twitter in the first place, which almost certainly could not exist in their current form without Section 230 protection. The future of democracy should not depend on the whims of billionaire jerks like Mark Zuckerberg.
The answer, in this case, would be to repeal Section 230 protection and hold Internet intermediaries to the same sort of liability as to their competitors in print and broadcast media. But that would actually jeopardize social media profits, apparently few members of Congress are willing to do that.