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Online Speech Has Harmful Effects on Both Individuals and Society, According to Mary Anne Franks

Jericho Casper

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Screenshot of Cyber Civil Rights Initiative President Mary Anne Franks from the webcast

July 10, 2020 — A letter signed by over 150 prominent intellectuals and artists was published by Harper’s Magazine on Tuesday, warning against an “intolerant culture” engulfing American values.

“As writers, we need a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes,” the letter read.

The letter immediately drew criticism, with many arguing that mistakes causing measurable harm to minority populations deserve to result in consequences.

In a Thursday virtual conversation with Sam Knight, senior vice president and chief program officer of the Knight Foundation, Mary Anne Franks, a University of Miami law professor and president of the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, shared her insights as one of the leading thinkers on the harmful effects of certain online speech.

In her recent book, The Cult of the Constitution, Franks attempted to unpack how the First Amendment is understood in America, finding that many interpret the text to advance their personal political views.

“People understand when this happens in the religious context,” Franks said, adding that people can comprehend when an individual’s attachment to their own self-interest affects the interpretation of a text.

“It’s important to ask who is speaking all the time,” Franks said. “It is politicians, capitalists and the same people running a monolithic culture of the freedom of speech.”

“Primarily white wealthy men’s views are there,” she continued. “There’s no way to ignore the president’s speech on Twitter.”

Yet these prominent voices often belong to the same individuals saying that their speech is being stifled or not fully heard.

“Do we actually think women and minorities have the same freedom of speech that everyone else has? Is their speech really free?” Franks asked.

Women and minorities are the primary targets of death threats and doxing online, things that no individual deserves, she pointed out.

Franks honored contributors to the #MeToo movement, an ongoing online movement against sexual harassment and sexual abuse where people publicize their allegations online, saying all of these individuals were putting themselves at risk.

Women and minorities often choose to be anonymous online to protect themselves, while white males are often anonymous online in order to harass others without consequences, she claimed.

Franks suggested individuals should ask themselves, “Does your speech impose risk? If so, who is experiencing the burden of the risk of your speech?”

“It doesn’t matter how much you feel, it matters how much measurable harm your speech is causing,” she said.

Franks pointed to crucial lessons she learned from Michelle Vocaulx, who distinguished between fearless speech and reckless speech.

“Fearless speech has to involve taking a risk to one’s self,” she said. “Reckless speech is the provocative.”

Franks argued that the internet has fundamentally altered speech, increasing the amount of reckless speech.

“It makes us all impulsive and makes us judgmental of other people’s impulses,” she said.

To draw out this point, she compared the speech norms of the internet to the speech norms of the university.

“When in conversation in the university, you can’t just send the student away — your job is to continue to have a conversation,” Franks said. “We don’t have to make a judgement about that person. We can make a judgement about society.”

Yet the norms of the internet encourage bad faith speech that is “less generous, less compassionate, less interesting, less informative and less thoughtful,” she said.

Franks also questioned whether the plethora of online reckless speech is really speech at all.

“The First Amendment has real contested boundaries between speech and conduct,” she said. “If I punch you in the face, that’s conduct, not speech.”

“One of the problems of the internet, which is contributed to by Section 230 but also the tech industry, is that it promotes the idea that everything online is speech, when it’s really not,” Franks argued.

“You buy things online, you socialize online — the Internet has become intertwined with all of our daily activities,” she continued.

Categorizing all of these digital interactions as speech, especially when they would not be considered speech in the offline world, is wrong, Franks said.

Assistant Editor Jericho Casper graduated from the University of Virginia studying media policy. She grew up in Newport News in an area heavily impacted by the digital divide. She has a passion for universal access and a vendetta against anyone who stands in the way of her getting better broadband.

Courts

Supreme Court Declares Trump First Amendment Case Moot, But Legal Issues For Social Media Coming

Benjamin Kahn

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Photo of Justice Clarence Thomas in April 2017 by Preston Keres in the public domain

April 5, 2021—Despite accepting a petition that avoids the Supreme Court deliberating on whether a president can block social media users, Justice Clarence Thomas on Monday issued a volley that may foreshadow future legal issues surrounding social media in the United States.

On Monday, the Supreme Court sent back to a lower court and ruled as moot a lawsuit over whether former President Donald Trump could block followers on Twitter, after accepting a petition by the federal government to end the case because Trump wasn’t president anymore.

The case dates back to March 2018, when the Knight First Amendment Institute and others brought a case against former president Trump in the Southern District of New York for blocking users based on their political views, arguing the practice is a violation of the first amendment.

The lower court judge agreed, and the decision was upheld by the United States Court of Appeals.

In accepting the petition by the government, Justice Thomas stated that adjudicating legal issues surrounding digital platforms is uniquely difficult. “Applying old doctrines to new digital platforms is rarely straightforward,” he wrote. The case in question hinged on the constitutionality of then-President Trump banning people from interacting with his Twitter account, which the plaintiff argued was a protected public forum.

Thomas stated that while today’s conclusion was able to be vacated, that likely would not be the case in the future. He went on to say that digital platforms exercise “concentrated control of so much speech in the hands of a few private parties.”

He continued: “We will soon have no choice but to address how our legal doctrines apply to highly concentrated, privately owned information infrastructure such as digital platforms.”

Even though Facebook and Google were not the platforms in question in this case, Thomas pointed to them as “dominant digital platforms” and stated that they have “enormous control over speech.” He stated that Google, Facebook, and Twitter have the capabilities to suppress information and speech at will, and referenced the “cataclysmic consequences” for authors that Amazon disagrees with.

Thomas also rejected the notion that other options exist.

“A person always could choose to avoid the toll bridge or train and instead swim the Charles River or hike the Oregon Trail. But in assessing whether a company exercises substantial market power, what matters is whether the alternatives are comparable.”

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Section 230

Sen. Mike Lee Promotes Bills Valuing Federal Spectrum, Requiring Content Moderation Disclosures

Tim White

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Screenshot of Mike Lee taken from Silicon Slopes event

April 5, 2021 – Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, said Friday spectrum used by federal agencies is not being utilized efficiently, following legislation he introduced early last year that would evaluate the allocation and value of federally-reserved spectrum.

The Government Spectrum Valuation Act, or S.553 and introduced March 3, directs the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to consult with the Federal Communications Commission and Office of Management and Budget to estimate the value of spectrum between 3 kilohertz and 95 gigahertz that is assigned to federal agencies.

Lee spoke at an event hosted by the Utah tech association Silicon Slopes on Friday about the legislation, in addition to other topics, including Section 230.

Some bands on the spectrum are reserved for federal agencies as they need it, but it’s not always managed efficiently, Lee said. Some are used by the Department of Defense for ‘national security,’ for example, but when asked what that spectrum is used for, we’re told, ‘we can’t tell you because of national security,’ he said.

“Just about everything we do on the internet is carried out through a mobile device, and all of that requires access to spectrum,” he said.

He said that lives are becoming more affected and enhanced by our connection to the internet, often through a wireless connection, which is increasing the need for the government to efficiently manage spectrum bandwidth, he said. Some of the bands are highly valuable, he said, comparing them to the “beach front property” of spectrum.

Legislation changing Section 230

Lee also spoke on Section 230, a statute that protects online companies from liability for content posted by their users. It’s a hot topic for policymakers right now as they consider regulating social media platforms.

Both Republicans and Democrats want more regulation for tech companies, but for different reasons. Democrats want more moderation against alleged hate speech or other content, citing the January 6 riot at the Capitol as one example of not enough censorship. Republicans on the other hand, including Lee, allege social media companies censor or remove right-leaning political content but do not hold the same standard for left-leaning content.

Lee highlighted that platforms have the right to be as politically-biased as they want, but it’s a problem when their terms of service or CEOs publicly state they are neutral, but then moderate content from a non-neutral standpoint, he said.

Lee expressed hesitation about repealing or changing Section 230. “If you just repealed it altogether, it would give, in my view, an undo advantage to big market incumbents,” he said. One solution is supplementing Section 230 with additional clarifying language or new legislation, he said.

That’s why he came up with the Promise Act, legislation he introduced on February 24 that would require the disclosure of rules for content moderation, and permit the Federal Trade Commission to take corrective action against companies who violate those disclosed rules. “I don’t mean it to be an exclusive solution, but I think it is a reasonably achievable step toward some type of sanity in this area,” he said.

Senator Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and a couple of her colleagues also drafted Section 230 legislation that would maintain the spirit of the liability provision, but would remove it for paid content.

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Section 230

Pressed by Congress, Big Tech Defends Itself and Offers Few Solutions After Capitol Riot

Tim White

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Photo of Google CEO Sundar Pichai from a December 2018 hearing before the House Judiciary Committee by Drew Clark

March 26, 2021 – The heads of the largest social media companies largely defended their platforms, reiterated what they’ve done, and offered few solutions to the problems that ail them during a congressional hearing Thursday.

But, under harsh questioning from the House Energy and Commerce Committee, none of the CEOs of Google, Facebook or Twitter were given chance to respond to questions for more than 30 to 60 seconds on a given topic.

The hearing was about misinformation on social media in the fallout of the January 6 Capitol riot. The CEOs said dealing with the problem of dis- and misinformation on their platforms is more difficult than people think.

“The responsibility here lies with the people who took the actions to break the law and do the insurrection,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in response to a question about whether the platforms were to blame for the riot.

“Secondarily, also, the people who spread that content, including the president, but others as well, with repeated rhetoric over time, saying that the election was rigged and encouraging people to organize. I think those people bare the primary responsibility as well,” Zuckerberg said.

Zuckerberg added that “polarization was rising in America long before social networks were even invented,” he said. He blamed the “political and media environment that drives Americans apart.”

A ‘complex question’ of fault

Google CEO Sundar Pichai said it’s a “complex question” in response to the question of who’s at fault for the riot. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, however, was more direct: “Yes, but you also have to take into consideration a broader ecosystem; it’s not just about the technology platforms we use,” he said.

It was the first time Zuckerberg, Dorsey and Pichai appeared on Capitol Hill since the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. The hearing was spurred by the riot and the turbulent presidential election that concluded in Joe Biden’s win and Donald Trump’s ban from Twitter and Facebook. Congress has turned their eye toward the social media companies for several months on possible Section 230 reform to address the alleged problems in the tech industry.

“Our nation is drowning in misinformation driven by social media. Platforms that were once used to share kids with grandparents are all-too-often havens of hate, harassment and division,” said Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Penn., chairman of the Communications and Technology subcommittee, who led the hearing. Doyle alleged the platforms “supercharged” the riot.

Both Democratic and Republican members of the committee laid out a variety of grievances during the five-hour meeting, and while they didn’t all share the same concerns, all agreed that something needs to be done.

“I hope you can take away from this hearing how serious we are, on both sides of the aisle, to see many of these issues that trouble Americans addressed,” Doyle said.

Congressional concerns

On the left side of the political aisle the main criticism against the tech giants was the spread of misinformation and extremism, including COVID-19 vaccines, climate change and the 2020 presidential election that Trump alleged was rigged against him.

“It is not an exaggeration to say that your companies have fundamentally and permanently transformed our very culture, and our understanding of the world,” said Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Illinois. “Much of this is for good, but it is also true that our country, our democracy, even our understanding of what is ‘truth’ has been harmed by the proliferation and dissemination of misinformation and extremism,” she said.

“Unfortunately, this disinformation and extremism doesn’t just stay online, it has real-world, often dangerous and even violent consequences, and the time has come to hold online platforms accountable,” said Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J.

From the right, Republican members voiced concerns about too much censorship, easy access to opioids, and the harm on children they said social media has.

“I’m deeply concerned by your decisions to operate your companies in a vague and biased manner, with little to no accountability, while using Section 230 as a shield for your actions and their real-world consequences,” said Rep. Bob Latta, R-Ohio. “Your companies had the power to silence the president of the United States, shut off legitimate journalism in Australia, shut down legitimate scientific debate on a variety of issues, dictate which articles or websites are seen by Americans when they search the internet,” he said.

“Your platforms are my biggest fear as a parent,” said Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Washington, expressing frustration over the impact that social media has on children. “It’s a battle for their development, a battle for their mental health, and ultimately, a battle for their safety,” she said, citing a rise of teen suicides since 2011. “I do not want you defining what is true for them, I do not want their future manipulated by your algorithms,” she said.

Platforms say it’s challenging, reiterate initiatives

In response to the many criticisms, Zuckerberg made it clear that while moderating content is central to address misinformation, it is important to protect speech as much as possible while taking down illegal content, which he said can be a huge challenge. As an example, bullying hurts the victim but there’s not a clear line where we can just censor speech, he said.

Pichai said that Google’s mission is about organizing and delivering information to the world and allowing free expression while also combatting misinformation. But it’s an evolving challenge, he said, because approximately 15 percent of google searches each day are new, and 500 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute. To reinforce that point, he cited the fact that 18 months ago no one had heard of COVID-19, and in 2020 ‘coronavirus’ was the most trending search.

Dorsey expressed a similar sentiment about the evolving challenge of balancing freedom of expression with content moderation. “We observe what’s happening on our service, we work to understand the ramifications, and we use that understanding to strengthen our operations. We push ourselves to improve based on the best information we have,” he said.

The best way to face new challenges is to narrow down the problem to have the greatest impact, Dorsey said. For example, disinformation is a broad concept, and we focused on disinformation leading to offline harm, he said. Twitter worked on three specific categories, he said, these included manipulated media, public health and civic integrity.

“Ultimately, we’re running a business, and a business wants to grow the number of customers it serves. Enforcing a policy is a business decision,” Dorsey said.

Dorsey noted Twitter’s new Bluesky project, a decentralized internet protocol that various social media companies would be able to utilize, rather than being owned by a single company. It will improve the social media environment by increasing innovation around business models, recommended algorithms, and moderation controls in the hands of individuals instead of private companies, he said. But others already working in a similar technology space say the project is not without its problems.

On Section 230 reform

On the question of changing Section 230 of the Telecommunications Act, which grants social media companies immunity from liability for user-generated content, Zuckerberg suggested two specific changes: Platforms need to issue transparency reports about harmful content, and need better moderation for content that is clearly illegal. These changes should only affect large social media platforms, he said, but did not specify the difference between a large and small platform.

Dorsey said those may be good ideas, but it could be difficult to determine what is a large and small platform, and having those stipulations may incentivize the wrong things.

When asked about Instagram’s new version for children, Zuckerberg confirmed it was in the planning stage and many details were still being worked out.

Several Democrats raised concerns about minority populations, citing as one example the March 16 shooting in Atlanta that killed eight people including several Asian American women. Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Cal., asked why various hashtags such as #kungflu and #chinavirus were not removed from Twitter.

Dorsey responded that Twitter does take action against hate speech, but it can also be a challenge because it’s not always simple to distinguish between content that supports an idea and counter speech that condemns the support of that idea.

The tech leaders were asked by multiple members about the platform algorithms failing to catch specific instances of content moderation. Democrats referred to examples of posts containing misinformation or hate speech, while Republicans used examples of conservative-based content being removed.

Both Zuckerberg and Dorsey said that their systems are not perfect and it’s not realistic to expect perfection. Some content will always slip by our radars that we have to address individually, Zuckerberg said.

In response to Rep. Steve Scalise’s reference to a 2020 New York Post story about Hunter Biden that was taken down, Dorsey said we have made mistakes in some instances.

Editor’s Note: This story has been revised to add in a second paragraph that more accurately captured the fact that, while the tech executives offered few solutions, they were given little opportunity to do so by members of Congress. Additionally, the word “secondarily” was added back into Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s statement about who bore responsibility for the insurrection.

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