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Legal Digital Framework Must Be Created For Content Moderation, Says Head of European Court of Human Rights

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Screenshot of judge Róbert Spanó from German Marshall Fund of the United States event

March 16, 2021—The president of the European Court of Human Rights is recommending an autonomous legal body that oversees a digital framework for content moderation.

Róbert Spanó said Tuesday, at a talk hosted by the German Marshall Fund of the United States, that the framework would serve as a digital version of legal and due process principles that would be played out over the internet, unconstrained by the borders that generally restrain traditional legal systems, and ensuring tech companies abide are kept in-line to suppress hate and content that incites violence.

Spanó, who is a judge and has served on the European court since 2013, was pressing the importance of content moderation in the digital age. This week, the South by Southwest conference has played host to discussions about reforming Section 230 and content moderation.

“What the internet does is it creates an environment where certain interactions are occurring outside the classical paradigm of human interaction being regulated by governmental power,” Spanó said. He explained that even though this digital environment is sustained by private actors instead of the government, it should not be immune to classical rule of law and due process principles.

Spanó said for this environment to sustain itself, platforms in the digital space must craft a framework that emulates those principles.

Facebook, for its part, has established an autonomous Oversight Board to provide it with recommendations on what it should do about certain content.

But tech approaches to content moderation have been largely patchwork: Twitter and Facebook use a blend of artificial intelligence and human moderators, but Patreon, a website that facilitates payments to creators, uses only human moderators. And their approach to moderation can be radically divergent.

A digital legal system

Spanó proposed a system of governance that exists only in the digital realm. While this system would not operate in the traditional way where courts are limited by physical jurisdiction, it would still promote classical legal principles, albeit in an expedited fashion to match the breakneck speed that discourse occurs online.

He added that this system could be adjudicated by judges that are specially trained to operate in this digital realm. “I think it is a…duty of judges to re-educate ourselves about issues that arise,” Spanó said.

He cautioned that a failure to establish a framework with these goals would inevitably result in either threats to a citizens’ autonomy or the rise of arbitrary decisions at the hands of those in power—whether they be private or otherwise.

Tech companies explain their moderation philosophies

On the same day Judge Spanó gave his talk, South by Southwest Online hosted a panel of experts representing the Oversight Board, Twitter, and Patreon, where they addressed their respective roles, concerns, and goals. They discussed scenarios ranging from the simple mislabeling of what they consider to be age-restricted content, all the way to violent extremism and hate speech.

Rachel Wolbers is the public policy manager for Oversite Board. Like Twitter’s hybrid model, Oversite Board is made up exclusively of human board members who adjudicate content moderation decisions that may have first been identified by AI on Facebook.

For the Oversight Board to address an issue, it must first be identified by Facebook as a potential rule violation—whether that violation is identified by AI or a human moderator. After an issue is settled by Facebook, the alleged violator can choose to either accept Facebook’s ruling, or ultimately petition Oversite Board to look over the post in question.

The Oversite Board only chooses to look more closely at a handful of cases, and so far has only made seven decisions. Out of the seven cases it has analyzed, it has upheld Facebook’s ruling on a single occasion regarding an ethnic slur directed towards Azerbaijanis.

Wolbers offered that in the future, if other platforms were interested in utilizing Oversight Boards services, Oversight Board would be receptive to the idea. Because the Oversite Board is still in its infancy, its role in the broader digital landscape remains to be seen, but it is perhaps a precursor to wider frameworks that Judge Spanó alluded to.

As a child of American parents working abroad, Reporter Ben Kahn was raised as a third culture kid, growing up in five different countries, including the U.S.. He is a recent graduate of the University of Baltimore, where he majored in Policy, Politics, and International Affairs. He enjoys learning about foreign languages and cultures and can now speak poorly in more than one language.

Section 230

Experts Warn Against Total Repeal of Section 230

Panelists note shifting definition of offensive content.

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WASHINGTON, November 22, 2021 – Communications experts say action by Congress to essentially gut Section 230 would not truly solve any problems with social media.

Experts emphasized that it is not possible for platforms to remove from their site all content that people may believe to be dangerous. They argue that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which shields platforms from legal liability with respect to what their users post, is necessary in at least some capacity.

During discussion between these experts at Broadband Breakfast’s Live Online Event on Wednesday, Alex Feerst, the co-founder of the Digital Trust and Safety Partnership, who used to work as a content moderator, said that to a certain extent it is impossible for platforms to moderate speech that is “dangerous” because every person has differing opinions about what speech they consider to be dangerous. He says it is this ambiguity that Section 230 protects companies from.

Still, Feerst believes 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. He believes that the effects of artificial intelligence’s use by platforms makes some degree of liability even more essential.

Particularly with the amount of online speech to be reviewed by moderators in the internet age, Feerst says the clear-cut moderation standards are too messy and expensive to be viable options.

Matt Gerst, vice president for legal and policy affairs at the Internet Association, and Shane Tews, nonresident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, also say that while content moderation is complex, it is necessary. Scott McCollough, attorney at McCollough Law Firm, says large social media companies like Facebook are not the causes of all the problems with social media that are in the national spotlight right now, but rather that social features of today’s society, such as the extreme prevalence of conflict, are to blame for this focus on social media.

Proposals for change

Rick Lane, CEO of Iggy Ventures, proposes that reform of Section 230 should include a requirement for social media platforms to make very clear what content is and is not allowed on their sites. McCullough echoed this concern, saying that many moderation actions platforms take presently do not seem to be consistent with those platforms’ stated terms and conditions, and that individual states across the nation should be able to look at these instances on a case-by-case basis to determine whether platforms fairly apply their terms and conditions.

Feerst highlighted the nuance of this issue by saying that people’s definitions of “consistent” are naturally subjective, but agrees with McCullough that users who have content removed should be notified of such, as well as the reasoning for moderators’ action.

Lane also believes that rightfully included in the product of Section 230 reform will be a requirement for platforms to demonstrate a reasonable standard of care and moderate illegal and other extremely dangerous content on their sites. Tews generally agreed with Lane that such content moderation is complex, as she sees a separation between freedom of speech and illegal activity.

Gerst highlighted concerns from companies the Internet Association represents that government regulation coming from Section 230 reform will require widely varied platforms to standardize their operation approaches, diminishing innovation on the internet.

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Section 230

Democrats Use Whistleblower Testimony to Launch New Effort at Changing Section 230

The Justice Against Malicious Algorithms Act seeks to target large online platforms that push harmful content.

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Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-California

WASHINGTON, October 14, 2021 – House Democrats are preparing to introduce legislation Friday that would remove legal immunities for companies that knowingly allow content that is physically or emotionally damaging to its users, following testimony last week from a Facebook whistleblower who claimed the company is able to push harmful content because of such legal protections.

The Justice Against Malicious Algorithms Act would amend Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act – which provides legal liability protections to companies for the content their users post on their platform – to remove that shield when the platform “knowingly or recklessly uses an algorithm or other technology to recommend content that materially contributes to physical or severe emotional injury,” according to a Thursday press release, which noted that the legislation will not apply to small online platforms with fewer than five million unique monthly visitors or users.

The legislation is relatively narrow in its target: algorithms that rely on the personal user’s history to recommend content. It won’t apply to search features or algorithms that do not rely on that personalization and won’t apply to web hosting or data storage and transfer.

Reps. Anna Eshoo, D-California, Frank Pallone Jr., D-New Jersey, Mike Doyle, D-Pennsylvania, and Jan Schakowsky, D-Illinois, plan to introduce the legislation a little over a week after Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen alleged that the company misrepresents how much offending content it terminates.

Citing Haugen’s testimony before the Senate on October 5, Eshoo said in the release that “Facebook is knowingly amplifying harmful content and abusing the immunity of Section 230 well beyond congressional intent.

“The Justice Against Malicious Algorithms Act ensures courts can hold platforms accountable when they knowingly or recklessly recommend content that materially contributes to harm. This approach builds on my bill, the Protecting Americans from Dangerous Algorithms Act, and I’m proud to partner with my colleagues on this important legislation.”

The Protecting Americans from Dangerous Algorithms Act was introduced with Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-New Jersey, last October to hold companies responsible for “algorithmic amplification of harmful, radicalizing content that leads to offline violence.”

From Haugen testimony to legislation

Haugen claimed in her Senate testimony that according to internal research estimates, Facebook acts against just three to five percent of hate speech and 0.6 percent of violence incitement.

“The reality is that we’ve seen from repeated documents in my disclosures is that Facebook’s AI systems only catch a very tiny minority of offending content and best content scenario in the case of something like hate speech at most they will ever get 10 to 20 percent,” Haugen testified.

Haugen was catapulted into the national spotlight after she revealed herself on the television program 60 Minutes to be the person who leaked documents to the Wall Street Journal and the Securities and Exchange Commission that reportedly showed Facebook knew about the mental health harm its photo-sharing app Instagram has on teens but allegedly ignored them because it inconvenienced its profit-driven motive.

Earlier this year, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said the company was developing an Instagram version for kids under 13. But following the Journal story and calls by lawmakers to backdown from pursuing the app, Facebook suspended the app’s development and said it was making changes to its apps to “nudge” users away from content that they find may be harmful to them.

Haugen’s testimony versus Zuckerberg’s Section 230 vision

In his testimony before the House Energy and Commerce committee in March, Zuckerberg claimed that the company’s hate speech removal policy “has long been the broadest and most aggressive in the industry.”

This claim has been the basis for the CEO’s suggestion that Section 230 be amended to punish companies for not creating systems proportional in size and effectiveness to the company’s or platform’s size for removal of violent and hateful content. In other words, larger sites would have more regulation and smaller sites would face fewer regulations.

Or in Zuckerberg’s words to Congress, “platforms’ intermediary liability protection for certain types of unlawful content [should be made] conditional on companies’ ability to meet best practices to combat the spread of harmful content.”

Facebook has previously pushed for FOSTA-SESTA, a controversial 2018 law which created an exception for Section 230 in the case of advertisements related prostitution. Lawmakers have proposed other modifications to the liability provision, including removing protections in the case for content that the platform is paid for and for allowing the spread of vaccine misinformation.

Zuckerberg said companies shouldn’t be held responsible for individual pieces of content which could or would evade the systems in place so long as the company has demonstrated the ability and procedure of “adequate systems to address unlawful content.” That, he said, is predicated on transparency.

But according to Haugen, “Facebook’s closed design means it has no oversight — even from its own Oversight Board, which is as blind as the public. Only Facebook knows how it personalizes your feed for you. It hides behind walls that keep the eyes of researchers and regulators from understanding the true dynamics of the system.” She also alleges that Facebook’s leadership hides “vital information” from the public and global governments.

An Electronic Frontier Foundation study found that Facebook lags behind competitors on issues of transparency.

Where the parties agree

Zuckerberg and Haugen do agree that Section 230 should be amended. Haugen would amend Section 230 “to make Facebook responsible for the consequences of their intentional ranking decisions,” meaning that practices such as engagement-based ranking would be evaluated for the incendiary or violent content they promote above more mundane content. If Facebook is choosing to promote content which damages mental health or incites violence, Haugen’s vision of Section 230 would hold them accountable. This change would not hold Facebook responsible for user-generated content, only the promotion of harmful content.

Both have also called for a third-party body to be created by the legislature which provides oversight on platforms like Facebook.

Haugen asks that this body be able to conduct independent audits of Facebook’s data, algorithms, and research and that the information be made available to the public, scholars and researchers to interpret with adequate privacy protection and anonymization in place. Beside taking into account the size and scope of the platforms it regulates, Zuckerberg asks that the practices of the body be “fair and clear” and that unrelated issues “like encryption or privacy changes” are dealt with separately.

With reporting from Riley Steward

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Section 230

Repealing Section 230 Would be Harmful to the Internet As We Know It, Experts Agree

While some advocate for a tightening of language, other experts believe Section 230 should not be touched.

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Rep. Ken Buck, R-Colo., speaking on the floor of the House

WASHINGTON, September 17, 2021—Republican representative from Colorado Ken Buck advocated for legislators to “tighten up” the language of Section 230 while preserving the “spirit of the internet” and enhancing competition.

There is common ground in supporting efforts to minimize speech advocating for imminent harm, said Buck, even though he noted that Republican and Democratic critics tend to approach the issue of changing Section 230 from vastly different directions

“Nobody wants a terrorist organization recruiting on the internet or an organization that is calling for violent actions to have access to Facebook,” Buck said. He followed up that statement, however, by stating that the most effective way to combat “bad speech is with good speech” and not by censoring “what one person considers bad speech.”

Antitrust not necessarily the best means to improve competition policy

For companies that are not technically in violation of antitrust policies, improving competition though other means would have to be the answer, said Buck. He pointed to Parler as a social media platform that is an appropriate alternative to Twitter.

Though some Twitter users did flock to Parler, particularly during and around the 2020 election, the newer social media company has a reputation for allowing objectionable content that would otherwise be unable to thrive on social media.

Buck also set himself apart from some of his fellow Republicans—including Donald Trump—by clarifying that he does not want to repeal Section 230.

“I think that repealing Section 230 is a mistake,” he said, “If you repeal section 230 there will be a slew of lawsuits.” Buck explained that without the protections afforded by Section 230, big companies will likely find a way to sufficiently address these lawsuits and the only entities that will be harmed will be the alternative platforms that were meant to serve as competition.

More content moderation needed

Daphne Keller of the Stanford Cyber Policy Center argued that it is in the best interest of social media platforms to enact various forms of content moderation, and address speech that may be legal but objectionable.

“If platforms just hosted everything that users wanted to say online, or even everything that’s legal to say—everything that the First Amendment permits—you would get this sort of cesspool or mosh pit of online speech that most people don’t actually want to see,” she said. “Users would run away and advertisers would run away and we wouldn’t have functioning platforms for civic discourse.”

Even companies like Parler and Gab—which pride themselves on being unyielding bastions of free speech—have begun to engage in content moderation.

“There’s not really a left right divide on whether that’s a good idea, because nobody actually wants nothing but porn and bullying and pro-anorexia content and other dangerous or garbage content all the time on the internet.”

She explained that this is a double-edged sword, because while consumers seem to value some level of moderation, companies moderating their platforms have a huge amount of influence over what their consumers see and say.

What problems do critics of Section 230 want addressed?

Internet Association President and CEO Dane Snowden stated that most of the problems surrounding the Section 230 discussion boil down to a fundamental disagreement over the problems that legislators are trying to solve.

Changing the language of Section 230 would impact not just the tech industry: “[Section 230] impacts ISPs, libraries, and universities,” he said, “Things like self-publishing, crowdsourcing, Wikipedia, how-to videos—all those things are impacted by any kind of significant neutering of Section 230.”

Section 230 was created to give users the ability and security to create content online without fear of legal reprisals, he said.

Another significant supporter of the status quo was Chamber of Progress CEO Adam Kovacevich.

“I don’t think Section 230 needs to be fixed. I think it needs [a better] publicist.” Kovacevich stated that policymakers need to gain a better appreciation for Section 230, “If you took away 230 You would have you’d give companies two bad options: either turn into Disneyland or turn into a wasteland.”

“Either turn into a very highly curated experience where only certain people have the ability to post content, or turn into a wasteland where essentially anything goes because a company fears legal liability,” Kovacevich said.

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