March 17, 2021 – Changes to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act may not lead to the solution that America wants or needs, said panelists during a South by Southwest event Tuesday.
Section 230 grants immunity to social media platforms for user-generated content. It’s an increasingly visible topic before Congress, in the media and in the tech industry as many are concerned about the spread of misinformation and extremism. Like many others, the panel agreed that something needs to change, but the answer to that is not clear.
For Kate Ruane, senior legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, one of the main concerns is data algorithms that tech companies use for moderating content. They’ll build systems “that will identify speech that is ‘bad’ or could create a liability risk, they will build those programs and just run them automatically, and there will be no human review of it. And what’s going to happen is far, far more over-moderation than anybody intends,” she said.
Marginalized communities and speech that is considered outside the mainstream will be targeted, she explained. “Speech like that is speech that we want,” she said. “We don’t get marriage equality without speech like that, we don’t get Black Lives Matter without speech like that,” she said.
Rather than changing Section 230, Ruane targeted the core business model for big tech companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter. “Actually go after the business model of these companies, which is to collect your data, and market you as the product,” she said. If we can interrupt that, we’re moving in the right direction, she said.
Steven Rosenbaum, managing director at NYC Media Lab, said that disturbing online content is good revenue for social media platforms because users are drawn to it like people driving past a car accident. But these companies need to address the philosophical question of whether they want to support the amplification of this type of content, he said.
In recent months, social media companies have engaged in de-platforming users, including the Twitter ban of former-President Donald Trump after a group of his supporters caused a riot at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, and Amazon Web Services shut down servers for the conservative social media site Parler. But many other instances have happened over the years, such as AWS shutting down the news publication site Wikileaks in 2010 and various social media platforms collectively targeting ISIS in 2015.
Facebook also suspended Trump’s account, but that action is currently under review by the company’s new oversight board—a committee formed in 2020 that is akin to the Supreme Court for Facebook’s content moderation.
Protecting user’s freedom of speech is a concern for many, but Twitter and Facebook are not required to ensure the first amendment rights of their users. Despite that, Ruane said that companies need to be viewpoint-neutral in how they moderate content. “It is very important for platforms like Twitter, FB, YouTube, that are responsible for the speech of billions of people around the world, to be avoiding censorship to the extent that they can, because they are gatekeepers to the public square. And when they moderate content, they often get it wrong,” she said.
Social media has been a medium for recruiting and spreading violent groups, such as ISIS and, more recently, far-right extremists. Much of that content has been banned from online platforms, which the panelists agreed was a good thing.
Determining what content is removed can be a challenge though, depending on what type it is, said Amarnath Amarasingam, professor at Queen’s University in Canada. ISIS content was fairly easy to target because a lot of it was branded, he said. But with other content, such as from far-right extremist groups, it is more difficult because those groups don’t have a brand, he said.
But preserving that content in some way is also important for academic and historical reasons, said Jillian York, director for international freedom of expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, stressing the importance of documenting human rights. She expressed concern over the loss of content that is being scrapped from the internet that details atrocities and other problems in areas like Syria.
“There is a case to be made even if that material should not be allowed to be publicly posted, that it should still be documented in some way, and the vast majority of it is thrown in the bin of history by content moderators,” she said.
Ruane agreed with York, referring to the Capitol riot as a recent example. “We’re seeing so much evidence, we’re seeing so much documentation of what happened on January 6 being removed from the internet entirely with no sense of whether we will be able to preserve it for research value or for historical value at all,” she said.
Ruane also expressed concern about the lack of transparency from tech companies in their decisions to remove users and content. These platforms are not consistent and are not transparent, she said.
Whether or not de-platforming actually works to limit one’s influence is a major question. The panel said it is possible that users banned from mainstream sites may find other platforms that agree with their sentiments.
Parler Policy Exec Hopes ‘Sustainable’ Free Speech Change on Twitter if Musk Buys Platform
Parler’s Amy Peikoff said she wishes Twitter can follow in her social media company’s footsteps.
WASHINGTON, May 16, 2022 – A representative from a growing conservative social media platform said last week that she hopes Twitter, under new leadership, will emerge as a “sustainable” platform for free speech.
Amy Peikoff, chief policy officer of social media platform Parler, said as much during a Broadband Breakfast Live Online event Wednesday, in which she wondered about the implications of platforms banning accounts for views deemed controversial.
The social media world has been captivated by the lingering possibility that SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk could buy Twitter, which the billionaire has criticized for making decisions he said infringe on free speech.
Before Musk’s decision to go in on the company, Parler saw a surge in member sign-ups after former President Donald Trump was banned from Twitter for comments he made that the platform saw as encouraging the Capitol riots on January 6, 2021, a move Peikoff criticized. (Trump also criticized the move.)
Peikoff said she believes Twitter should be a free speech platform just like Parler and hopes for “sustainable” change with Musk’s promise.
“At Parler, we expect you to think for yourself and curate your own feed,” Peikoff told Broadband Breakfast Editor and Publisher Drew Clark. “The difference between Twitter and Parler is that on Parler the content is controlled by individuals; Twitter takes it upon itself to moderate by itself.”
She recommended “tools in the hands of the individual users to reward productive discourse and exercise freedom of association.”
Peikoff criticized Twitter for permanently banning Donald Trump following the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, and recounted the struggle Parler had in obtaining access to hosting services on AWS, Amazon’s web services platform.
While she defended the role of Section 230 of the Telecom Act for Parler and others, Peikoff criticized what she described as Twitter’s collusion with the government. Section 230 provides immunity from civil suits for comments posted by others on a social media network.
For example, Peikoff cited a July 2021 statement by former White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki raising concerns with “misinformation” on social media. When Twitter takes action to stifle anti-vaccination speech at the behest of the White House, that crosses the line into a form of censorship by social media giants that is, in effect, a form of “state action.”
Conservatives censored by Twitter or other social media networks that are undertaking such “state action” are wrongfully being deprived of their First Amendment rights, she said.
“I would not like to see more of this entanglement of government and platforms going forward,” she said Peikoff and instead to “leave human beings free to information and speech.”
The acquisition of social media powerhouse Twitter by Elon Musk, the world’s richest man, raises a host of issues about social media, free speech, and the power of persuasion in our digital age. Twitter already serves as the world’s de facto public square. But it hasn’t been without controversy, including the platform’s decision to ban former President Donald Trump in the wake of his tweets during the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. Under new management, will Twitter become more hospitable to Trump and his allies? Does Twitter have a free speech problem? How will Mr. Musk’s acquisition change the debate about social media and Section 230 of the Telecommunications Act?
Guests for this Broadband Breakfast for Lunch session:
- Amy Peikoff, Chief Policy Officer, Parler
- Drew Clark (host), Editor and Publisher, Broadband Breakfast
Amy Peikoff is the Chief Policy Officer of Parler. After completing her Ph.D., she taught at universities (University of Texas, Austin, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, United States Air Force Academy) and law schools (Chapman, Southwestern), publishing frequently cited academic articles on privacy law, as well as op-eds in leading newspapers across the country on a range of issues. Just prior to joining Parler, she founded and was President of the Center for the Legalization of Privacy, which submitted an amicus brief in United States v. Facebook in 2019.
Drew Clark is the Editor and Publisher of BroadbandBreakfast.com and a nationally-respected telecommunications attorney. Drew brings experts and practitioners together to advance the benefits provided by broadband. Under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, he served as head of a State Broadband Initiative, the Partnership for a Connected Illinois. He is also the President of the Rural Telecommunications Congress.
As with all Broadband Breakfast Live Online events, the FREE webcasts will take place at 12 Noon ET on Wednesday.
Leave Section 230 Alone, Panelists Urge Government
The debate on what government should — or shouldn’t — do with respect to liability protections for platforms continues.
WASHINGTON, May 10, 2022 – A panelist at a Heritage Foundation event on Thursday said that the government should not make changes to Section 230, which protects online platforms from being liable for the content their users post.
However, the other panelist, Newsweek Opinion Editor Josh Hammer, said technology companies have been colluding with the government to stifle speech. Hammer said that Section 230 should be interpreted and applied more vigorously against tech platforms.
Countering this view was Niam Yaraghi, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Technology Innovation.
“While I do agree with the notion that what these platforms are doing is not right, I am much more optimistic” than Hammer, Yaraghi said. “I do not really like the government to come in and do anything about it, because I believe that a capitalist market, an open market, would solve the issue in the long run.”
Addressing a question from the moderator about whether antitrust legislation or stricter interpretation of Section 230 should be the tool to require more free speech on big tech platforms, Hammer said that “Section 230 is the better way to go here.”
Yaraghi, by contrast, said that it was incumbent on big technology platforms to address content moderation, not the government.
In March, Vint Cerf, a vice president and chief internet evangelist at Google, and the president of tech lobbyist TechFreedom warned against government moderation of content on the internet as Washington focuses on addressing the power of big tech platforms.
While some say Section 230 only protects “neutral platforms”, others claim it allows powerful companies to ignore user harm. Legislation from the likes of Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., would exempt 230 protections for platforms that fail to address Covid mis- and disinformation.
Correction: A previous version of this story said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., agreed that Section 230 only protected “neutral platforms,” or that it allowed tech companies to ignore user harm. Wyden, one of the authors of the provision in the 1996 Telecom Act, instead believes that the law is a “sword and shield” to protect against small companies, organizations and movements against legal liability for what users post on their websites.
Additional correction: A previous version of this story misattributed a statement by Niam Yaraghi to Josh Hammer. The story has been corrected, and additional context added.
Reforming Section 230 Won’t Help With Content Moderation, Event Hears
Government is ‘worst person’ to manage content moderation.
WASHINGTON, April 11, 2022 — Reforming Section 230 won’t help with content moderation on online platforms, observers said Monday.
“If we’re going to have some content moderation standards, the government is going to be, usually, the worst person to do it,” said Chris Cox, a member of the board of directors at tech lobbyist Net Choice and a former Congressman.
These comments came during a panel discussion during an online event hosted by the American Enterprise Institute that focused on speech regulation and Section 230, a provision in the Communications Decency Act that protects technology platforms from being liable for posts by their users.
“Content moderation needs to be handled platform by platform and rules need to be established by online communities according to their community standards,” Cox said. “The government is not very competent at figuring out the answers to political questions.”
There was also discussion about the role of the first amendment in content moderation on platforms. Jeffrey Rosen, a nonresident fellow at AEI, questioned if the first amendment provides protection for content moderation by a platform.
“The concept is that the platform is not a publisher,” he said. “If it’s not [a publisher], then there’s a whole set of questions as to what first amendment interests are at stake…I don’t think that it’s a given that the platform is the decider of those content decisions. I think that it’s a much harder question that needs to be addressed.”
Late last year, experts said that it is not possible for platforms to remove from their site all content that people may believe to be dangerous during a Broadband Breakfast Live Online event. However some, like Alex Feerst, the co-founder of the Digital Trust and Safety Partnership, believe that platforms should hold some degree of liability for the content of their sites as harm mitigation with regards to dangerous speech is necessary where possible.
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