Google, Facebook and Twitter Should Ween Themselves off of the Section 230 Subsidy

by Mike Wendy on October 11, 2017

A colleague of mine, Fred Campbell, recently wrote a piece in which he posits, “Maybe We Should ‘End The Internet As We Know It’.

In the piece he notes:

If only the internet we know weren’t such a mess. Policies that net neutrality advocates are clamoring to preserve have facilitated the internet’s roles in undermining fair elections, providing a safe haven for sex traffickers, destroying privacy, nurturing the world’s largest information monopolies (e.g., Google, Amazon), subverting free speech, and devastating publishing industries.

What Campbell specifically refers to is Section 230 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 – or, what some in the tech industry call “the most important law in tech.” It allows service providers (like those in Silicon Valley) to block “objectionable” material and avoid liability of content trafficking over their networks from third-parties.

Main Street content creators bear the brunt of Section 230’s online favoritism.

It’s important, alright. Many credit it with creating the Web as we know it, relaxing the traditional legal treatment of publishers, who would otherwise be on the hook for everything they put out on their properties.

Google, Facebook and Twitter have used Section 230 protections to the extreme. They’ve enabled the companies to legally exploit the “free” (often pirated) content of third-parties, attracting billions of eyeballs to their platforms to sell ads and other goodies. In practice, 230 represents a tremendous subsidy from Main Street content creators to the online world. The Big Three have reaped an immense windfall as a result.

Should we revisit this policy? Perhaps – if one finds it has somehow distorted the marketplace; or if it has helped create a moral hazard.

I think we are close to (but not yet over) that bar with the behavior of the Big Three.

Recently, Google, Facebook and Twitter have all come into the headlines for profiting from “Russian propaganda” / “fake news” during the ’16 Presidential election. You may also remember their efforts this past year to censor “undesirable speech” pouring over their platforms, such as what resulted from the Charlottesville clashes, or the various speech councils erected to protect against bullying and so-called “hate speech.”

Apparently, the Big Three recognize the peril their behavior has put them in, and, for the time being, they seem to have put on their grown-up pants and have begun acting more like newspapers (which at least one Google-funded academic says they already are). I say seem.  You see, they want to censor and control their facilities through their fastidiously maintained, proprietary algorithms and human content control councils – acts that look strikingly like traditional publishing decisions – yet still avoid the liability for pirated content, defamation, etc. that comes with being a full-fledged publisher.

In other words, they want their cake and eat it, too.

Printing press – The Big Three should come clean and declare themselves traditional publishers, mitigating the distorting effects of Section 230’s subsidy.

Printed newspapers and broadcast outlets have to vet everything they publish. It all has to be sourced and the content paid for / properly titled before it goes out the door. This work is expensive, and puts them at great disadvantage to those who don’t have such legal obligations (like the Big Three).

I don’t have a quick answer here, but something isn’t right about the 230 subsidy / imbalance, especially when you see Silicon Valley push another Valley-favoring subsidy – Net Neutrality – which it and its political beneficiaries designed to prevent ISPs from doing the very things Google, Facebook and Twitter are doing right now: arbitrarily / unreasonably / non-transparently censoring, blocking and discriminating against unaffiliated content.

Let’s face it, Google, Facebook and Twitter bend our information markets at their will, not the market’s. They should be held to a higher standard.

I’m not advocating changing the protections of Section 230 (though some in Congress are). Rather, I think it’s incumbent on the Big Three to accept what the market already knows to be the truth.  That is, they should come clean and declare themselves to be real newspapers / publishers. This means they would have to play by the same rules (and costs) others in the real-world bear to gather and present information in a trustworthy manner. I think this would go far to rid the marketplace of “fake news” and other nonsense that both taints the information diets of a majority of Americans, and undermines the very content creators whom the platforms exploit.

How long will Americans accept the tale from the Big Three, “Hey, it’s not our fault we traffic such crappy stuff, which (so greatly) affects your daily lives”?  What a morally repugnant stance.

The law does not require use of Section 230’s protections. It is an election.  The whole information ecosystem would be better off if the Big Three un-elected their distorting, hypocritical and exploitive 230 subsidy.

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