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Free Speech

Experts Reexamining Role of Targeted Ads and Political Extremism in Wake of January 6 Attack

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Screenshot of Robert Frank from YouTube

March 25, 2021—In the wake of rioters storming the Capital Building on January 6, experts and social media platforms are reexamining the role of targeted ads and content on virtual platforms.

Experts are divided on how to proceed on the future of targeted content. Some cautioned that its nature allows for the spread of extremist content that has the potential to radicalize, while others reject the notion and argue that such content advances free speech.

On a panel hosted by Fierce Wireless during their spring edition of 5G Blitz Week, experts discussed the merits of targeted content and the potential need for a new model.

Targeted content comes in many forms, but it is all designed to provide users with content that they are most likely to engage with and consume. This may be directing them to merchandise that they are likely to be interested in or entertainment that they are likely to enjoy.

The bad side of targeted ads

Unfortunately, there is also a more insidious side to targeted content. “The sad result is that the things that promote engagement for Facebook are not things that we like,” said Robert Frank, an emeritus professor of economics at Cornell University, who has written extensively on the subject.

He compared the situation to rubbernecking; car accidents are terrible, but drivers often cannot look away. Frank said this phenomenon is replicated online by hate speech and conspiracy theories.

Frank stated that there were some services that handled targeted content better than others. He argued that Google’s targeted ads are fairly innocuous when compared to Facebook, because they do not encourage the kind of polarization that news stories disseminated by Facebook do.

A new model for social media platforms

Frank took the position that this model of targeted content is not sustainable and that social media platforms have to find a new model. He pointed to a paid subscription model, which requires an up-front cost to view content. According to Frank, this cost allows the curators of subscription-based services to not use targeted and potentially radicalizing content.

This differs from free services like Twitter and Facebook, which make money by promoting targeted content. This incentivizes Facebook to keep viewers engaged for as long as possible, even if it means exposing them to extremist and/or polarizing content.

Frank said that social media platforms hired the same psychologists employed by casinos to make their user interfaces as attractive as possible.

Indeed, there has been a considerable amount of writing on the subject of the strategies employed by social media. In Natasha Schüll’s book, “Addiction by Design,” she lays out how strategies such as Snapchat streaks and endless scrolling is designed to create “ludic loops” that draw consumers in and keep them from leaving the platform.

Hal Varian is the chief economist at Google, and he was less optimistic about the subscription-based model and the notion that social media played a role in radicalization. On the state of targeted content on platforms like Facebook, Varian said: “I don’t think the internet is really a cause [of radicalization]—it may be in effect.”

He argued that the success or failure of a subscription service would come down to the pricing and determining what consumers would be willing to pay. Varian added that making estimates in this area is difficult, and that the costs of all the subscription services currently being used begin to add up. He pointed to the ongoing struggle that YouTube Premium is facing as it tries to eke out a niche between Hulu, Netflix, Spotify, and Apple Music.

Reporter Ben Kahn is a graduate of University of Baltimore and the National Journalism Center. His work has appeared in Washington Jewish Week and The Center Square, among other publications. He he covered almost every beat at Broadband Breakfast.

Section 230

Section 230 Interpretation Debate Heats Up Ahead of Landmark Supreme Court Case

Panelists disagreed over the merits of Section 230’s protections and the extent to which they apply.

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Screenshot of speakers at the Federalist Society webinar

WASHINGTON, January 25, 2023 — With less than a month to go before the Supreme Court hears a case that could dramatically alter internet platform liability protections, speakers at a Federalist Society webinar on Tuesday were sharply divided over the merits and proper interpretation of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

Gonzalez v. Google, which will go before the Supreme Court on Feb. 21, asks if Section 230 protects Google from liability for hosting terrorist content — and promoting that content via algorithmic recommendations.

If the Supreme Court agrees that “Section 230 does not protect targeted algorithmic recommendations, I don’t see a lot of the current social media platforms and the way they operate surviving,” said Ashkhen Kazaryan, a senior fellow at Stand Together.

Joel Thayer, president of the Digital Progress Institute, argued that the bare text of Section 230(c)(1) does not include any mention of the “immunities” often attributed to the statute, echoing an argument made by several Republican members of Congress.

“All the statute says is that we cannot treat interactive computer service providers or users — in this case, Google’s YouTube — as the publisher or speaker of a third-party post, such as a YouTube video,” Thayer said. “That is all. Warped interpretations from courts… have drastically moved away from the text of the statute to find Section 230(c)(1) as providing broad immunity to civil actions.”

Kazaryan disagreed with this claim, noting that the original co-authors of Section 230 — Sen. Ron Wyden, D-OR, and former Rep. Chris Cox, R-CA — have repeatedly said that Section 230 does provide immunity from civil liability under specific circumstances.

Wyden and Cox reiterated this point in a brief filed Thursday in support of Google, explaining that whether a platform is entitled to immunity under Section 230 relies on two prerequisite conditions. First, the platform must not be “responsible, in whole or in part, for the creation or development of” the content in question, as laid out in Section 230(f)(3). Second, the case must be seeking to treat the platform “as the publisher or speaker” of that content, per Section 230(c)(1).

The statute co-authors argued that Google satisfied these conditions and was therefore entitled to immunity, even if their recommendation algorithms made it easier for users to find and consume terrorist content. “Section 230 protects targeted recommendations to the same extent that it protects other forms of content presentation,” they wrote.

Despite the support of Wyden and Cox, Randolph May, president of the Free State Foundation, predicted that the case was “not going to be a clean victory for Google.” And in addition to the upcoming Supreme Court cases, both Congress and President Joe Biden could potentially attempt to reform or repeal Section 230 in the near future, May added.

May advocated for substantial reforms to Section 230 that would narrow online platforms’ immunity. He also proposed that a new rule should rely on a “reasonable duty of care” that would both preserve the interests of online platforms and also recognize the harms that fall under their control.

To establish a good replacement for Section 230, policymakers must determine whether there is “a difference between exercising editorial control over content on the one hand, and engaging in conduct relating to the distribution of content on the other hand… and if so, how you would treat those different differently in terms of establishing liability,” May said.

No matter the Supreme Court’s decision in Gonzalez v. Google, the discussion is already “shifting the Overton window on how we think about social media platforms,” Kazaryan said. “And we already see proposed regulation legislation on state and federal levels that addresses algorithms in many different ways and forms.”

Texas and Florida have already passed laws that would significantly limit social media platforms’ ability to moderate content, although both have been temporarily blocked pending litigation. Tech companies have asked the Supreme Court to take up the cases, arguing that the laws violate their First Amendment rights by forcing them to host certain speech.

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Section 230

Supreme Court Seeks Biden Administration’s Input on Texas and Florida Social Media Laws

The court has not yet agreed to hear the cases, but multiple justices have commented on their importance.

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Photo of Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar courtesy of the U.S. Department of Justice

WASHINGTON, January 24, 2023 — The Supreme Court on Monday asked for the Joe Biden administration’s input on a pair of state laws that would prevent social media platforms from moderating content based on viewpoint.

The Republican-backed laws in Texas and Florida both stem from allegations that tech companies are censoring conservative speech. The Texas law would restrict platforms with at least 50 million users from removing or demonetizing content based on “viewpoint.” The Florida law places significant restrictions on platforms’ ability to remove any content posted by members of certain groups, including politicians.

Two trade groups — NetChoice and the Computer & Communications Industry Association — jointly challenged both laws, meeting with mixed results in appeals courts. They, alongside many tech companies, argue that the law would violate platforms’ First Amendment right to decide what speech to host.

Tech companies also warn that the laws would force them to disseminate objectionable and even dangerous content. In an emergency application to block the Texas law from going into effect in May, the trade groups wrote that such content could include “Russia’s propaganda claiming that its invasion of Ukraine is justified, ISIS propaganda claiming that extremism is warranted, neo-Nazi or KKK screeds denying or supporting the Holocaust, and encouraging children to engage in risky or unhealthy behavior like eating disorders,”

The Supreme Court has not yet agreed to hear the cases, but multiple justices have commented on the importance of the issue.

In response to the emergency application in May, Justice Samuel Alito wrote that the case involved “issues of great importance that will plainly merit this Court’s review.” However, he disagreed with the court’s decision to block the law pending review, writing that “whether applicants are likely to succeed under existing law is quite unclear.”

Monday’s request asking Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar to weigh in on the cases allows the court to put off the decision for another few months.

“It is crucial that the Supreme Court ultimately resolve this matter: it would be a dangerous precedent to let government insert itself into the decisions private companies make on what material to publish or disseminate online,” CCIA President Matt Schruers said in a statement. “The First Amendment protects both the right to speak and the right not to be compelled to speak, and we should not underestimate the consequences of giving government control over online speech in a democracy.”

The Supreme Court is still scheduled to hear two other major content moderation cases next month, which will decide whether Google and Twitter can be held liable for terrorist content hosted on their respective platforms.

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Section 230

Google Defends Section 230 in Supreme Court Terror Case

‘Section 230 is critical to enabling the digital sector’s efforts to respond to extremist[s],’ said a tech industry supporter.

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Photo of ISIS supporter by HatabKhurasani from Wikipedia

WASHINGTON, January 13, 2023 – The Supreme Court could trigger a cascade of internet-altering effects that will encourage the proliferation of offensive speech and the suppression of speech and create a “litigation minefield” if it decides Google is liable for the results of terrorist attacks by entities publishing on its YouTube platform, the search engine company argued Thursday.

The high court will hear the case of an America family whose daughter Reynaldo Gonzalez was killed in an ISIS terrorist attack in Paris in 2015. The family sued Google under the AntiTerrorism Act for the death, alleging YouTube participated as a publisher of ISIS recruitment videos when it hosted them and its algorithm shared them on the video platform.

But in a brief to the court on Thursday, Google said it is not liable for the content published by third parties on its website according to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, and that deciding otherwise would effectively gut platform protection provision and “upend the internet.”

Denying the provision’s protections for platforms “could have devastating spillover effects,” Google argued in the brief. “Websites like Google and Etsy depend on algorithms to sift through mountains of user-created content and display content likely relevant to each user. If plaintiffs could evade Section 230(c)(1) by targeting how websites sort content or trying to hold users liable for liking or sharing articles, the internet would devolve into a disorganized mess and a litigation minefield.”

It would also “perversely encourage both wide-ranging suppression of speech and the proliferation of more offensive speech,” it added in the brief. “Sites with the resources to take down objectionable content could become beholden to heckler’s vetoes, removing anything anyone found objectionable.

“Other sites, by contrast, could take the see-no-evil approach, disabling all filtering to avoid any inference of constructive knowledge of third-party content,” Google added. “Still other sites could vanish altogether.”

Google rejected the argument that recommendations by its algorithms conveys an “implicit message,” arguing that in such a world, “any organized display [as algorithms do] of content ‘implicitly’ recommends that content and could be actionable.”

The Supreme Court is also hearing a similar case simultaneously in Twitter v. Taamneh.

The Section 230 scrutiny has loomed large since former President Donald Trump was banned from social media platforms for allegedly inciting the Capitol Hill riots in January 2021. Trump and conservatives called for rules limited that protection in light of the suspensions and bans, while the Democrats have not shied away from introducing legislation limited the provision if certain content continued to flourish on those platforms.

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas early last year issued a statement calling for a reexamination of tech platform immunity protections following a Texas Supreme Court decision that said Facebook was shielded from liability in a trafficking case.

Meanwhile, startups and internet associations have argued for the preservation of the provision.

“These cases underscore how important it is that digital services have the resources and the legal certainty to deal with dangerous content online,” Matt Schruers, president of the Computer and Communications Industry Association, said in a statement when the Supreme Court decided in October to hear the Gonzalez case.

“Section 230 is critical to enabling the digital sector’s efforts to respond to extremist and violent rhetoric online,” he added, “and these cases illustrate why it is essential that those efforts continue.”

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