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Capitol Hill attack could end Section 230 as we know it

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

This article was first featured in Yahoo Finance Tech, a weekly newsletter highlighting our original content on the industry. Get it sent directly to your inbox every Wednesday by 4 p.m. ET. Subscribe

Section 230 needs to change to save the internet

Since the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol by a mob of Trump supporters, Big Tech has taken dramatic steps to stem the spread of violent online rhetoric, curb misinformation, and limit the president’s use of social media — including his platform of choice, Twitter.

But Twitter’s and Facebook’s moves come at a convenient time, since Democrats will soon occupy the White House and have a majority in Congress. Can Big Tech really be trusted to do the right thing no matter who rules Washington, DC?

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law on "Online Platforms and Market Power" in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC on July 29, 2020.  Mandel Ngan/Pool via REUTERS
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law on "Online Platforms and Market Power" in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC on July 29, 2020. Mandel Ngan/Pool via REUTERS

To really ensure another insurrection like the one on Jan. 6 doesn’t happen again, Congress needs to step up to fix Big Tech’s favorite law: Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a liability shield that lets sites moderate user-generated content.

Because without such changes there’s nothing to hold social networks accountable for the content on their sites, or the real-world violence that results from it. Still, tossing out the law entirely could destroy the ability to speak freely on the internet. Instead, it’s up to lawmakers to address 230’s biggest shortcomings while continuing to protect free speech online.

Big Tech is out of options

Following the attack on the Capitol, calls for Twitter (TWTR), Facebook (FB), and Google (GOOG, GOOGL) to finally take action against violent speech on their platforms reached a crescendo. Facebook acted first by suspending Trump indefinitely. Twitter then moved beyond an initial 12-hour ban on Trump’s account, permanently blocking him from the platform, as well as banning prominent supporters of the QAnon conspiracy theory including former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn.

On Tuesday, Google suspended Trump’s YouTube page for seven days and warned the White House that additional violations would result in permanent suspension.

According to Sinan Aral, David Austin Professor of Management at MIT, the reactions by the world’s largest social media platforms to the unrest at the Capitol highlight the problems with the piecemeal approach they take to policy violations.

Twitter, in particular, banned Trump based on tweets that arguably weren’t as incendiary as past tweets, including his infamous “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” tweet in response to civil unrest following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.

A tweet by US president Donald Trump is seen being flagged as inciting violence by Twitter in this photo illustration on an Apple iPhone in Warsaw, Poland on May 29, 2020. Twitter on May 29 applied a fact-checking label to a vote-in-mail tweet by US President Donald Trump that the company considers misleading. Twitter has recently started labelling tweets with public notification and fact check labels. The labelling of Trump's tweet about the uproar following the death of George Floyd has seen the president signing an executive order targeting the Communications Decency Act. Section 230 which protects social media companies against lawsuits against them for user generated content. (Photo Illustration by Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
A tweet by President Trump that received a warning about glorifying violence. (Photo Illustration by Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

With such varying responses, social networks open themselves up to criticisms like those from conservatives who say they are unfairly silenced, a dubious claim at best.

“I’ve been calling for years for them to have systematic transparent and detailed content moderation policies so that every time this debate comes up that they don’t just decide based on a given tweet or a given post whether it does apply or doesn’t apply and whether the rules should be changed or not,” Aral, author of “The Hype Machine,” told Yahoo Finance.

Scott Galloway, NYU Stern School of Business professor of marketing, was more blunt in his assessment of how social media platforms responded to the Capitol attack.

“I think when you have a platform that is consistently weaponized and used for organizing and spreading misinformation that results in the overrun of our Capitol and five dead people, I think those [platform owners] should be held accountable,” Galloway, author of “The Four: The Hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Google, and Facebook,” told Yahoo Finance Live.

A politically opportune moment

It wasn’t just the ham-handed response from social networks that critics hit at, but the fact that they seem to only be making these moves against Trump now because it’s politically opportune.

With the president leaving office and Republicans no longer controlling the Senate, social media platforms need to prove to the incoming Biden administration and Democratically controlled House and Senate that they’ll better police their platforms. And the way to do that is to crack down on Trump’s use of their services.

“The reason that President Trump was kicked off of Facebook for two weeks was because of Stacey Abrams,” Galloway said, referring to the former Georgia gubernatorial candidate and activist who’s become a hero among Democrats for helping turn that state blue. “Facebook has done the calculus here, and they recognize that people overseeing these committees are going to have a different view on them.”

Trump has repeatedly threatened social networks, and Big Tech in general, with legislative action when they move to censor or otherwise qualify his posts on their platforms. Still, just because Trump is leaving the White House doesn’t mean the tech industry is free of new regulations. In fact, that may be the only way to finally address the kind of speech and misinformation found on social platforms.

‘The rubber meets the road’ with Section 230

Section 230, passed way back in 1996, is the foundational law of the modern internet. It’s what allows sites like Facebook, Google, Yelp, Twitter, heck, anything with a comments section, to make “good faith” efforts to moderate user-generated content deemed “objectionable” without facing liability over that content.

The law has drawn ire from both sides of the aisle — from some Republicans, who say it muzzles them, and from some Democrats, who say it doesn’t do enough to ensure social media sites remove harmful content.

For his part, Galloway says Section 230 will need to see some form of modifications if the health of online discourse is to improve from its current state.

Aral, meanwhile, agrees Section 230 must be changed, though he cautioned against throwing out the law completely. “A good example would be to give the platforms a reasonable amount of time to take down content after they’ve been notified that something is illegal or that something is harmful or violates a particular law,” he said, “and then give them a certain amount of time to take that down.”

With Democrats in charge of the executive and legislative branches, it seems only a matter of time before President-elect Joe Biden signs a law that finally reforms Section 230. Perhaps, in the end, America’s tech giants will be legally obligated to take down dangerous content long before it helps spur an attack on the democratic process.

Correction: The original date of the Capitol siege was previously misstated, and has been updated.

By Daniel Howley, tech editor. Follow him at @DanielHowley

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