ASPEN, Colorado, August 20, 2021—Two members of Facebook’s controversial and oft misunderstood Oversight Board on Monday attempted to clarify the role of the organization, months after it upheld Facebook’s decision to ban President Donald Trump from the platform.
The Oversight Board is an organization funded by an independent trust created and funded by Facebook. The body is responsible for making binding decisions on content moderation cases for Facebook and Instagram.
While the body was once only able to adjudicate cases referred to it by Facebook, it can now hear cases through an appeal process brought about by Facebook users themselves. Though the decision to uphold or dissent from Facebook’s moderation are binding upon Facebook, policy recommendations based off the board’s findings are not.
These were some of the points that Michael McConnell and Julie Owono attempted to address while speaking on a panel at the Technology Policy Institute’s 2021 Aspen Forum here on Monday.
McConnell pointed out that of all the recommendations that the board has made to Facebook, the social media giant has only accepted around half of them. He was quick to point out that, in his opinion, this was not necessarily a bad thing.
“We are still learning,” he said, “We need to hold [Facebook’s] feet to the fire but we also need to be practical.” McConnell stated that sometimes the board’s recommendations are too “utopian,” and that Facebook needs more realistic solutions.
Owono said she was supportive of initiatives and recommendations that would improve meaningful transparency. When pressed on the situation regarding the NYU researchers stonewalled by Facebook, she emphasized that collaborative efforts between all stakeholders are critical to ensuring that Facebook stays on the right path.
McConnell said that he agreed with Owono’s assessment. While he said he was not privy to the details surrounding the NYU research situation, he was confident that the work done by the Oversight Board had brought a level of publicity that itself would help to keep Facebook in line.
“When we make recommendations people notice,” he said. This kind of attention is often sufficient incentive for Facebook to take their suggestions seriously, he said.
Because Facebook is required to respond to the Oversight Board’s comments within a specific window of time, Owono said, “Not receiving an answer is [an answer].”
Vague Social Media Laws Create Fear in the Middle East. Can Encryption Tools Help?
Experts discuss how social media is being treated in the Middle East and how to respond.
WASHINGTON, January 25, 2022 – Far from being the savior of democracy in the Middle East, four experts said Monday that social media, and government regulation of it, is beginning to hurt civil rights activists.
The world is witnessing an increase in laws restricting social media access and hence regulating freedom of speech, especially in the Middle East, agreed the panelists, speaking at a Brookings Institution event.
Dina Hussein, the head of counterterrorism and dangerous organizations for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa at Facebook, and Chris Meserole, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, stated that too many countries are passing vague laws about what is and isn’t allowed on social media.
These new laws are purposefully unclear, they said. This new strategy has made it easier for the government to take down posts and restrict critics’ internet access while leaving up the posts of supporters and government officials.
These laws also spread fear within the regime because the vagueness puts anyone at risk of being arrested for something they post, they said.
When asked what can be done, Hussein said that Facebook promotes honesty through a website that focuses on Facebook’s own transparency and raises awareness of other countries’ laws for their users. In addition, Facebook is personally working to support civil rights activists in the areas of the world that are implementing such laws, Hussein said.
Encryption to avoid surveillance
Meserole said that democratic governments should not be fighting “fire with fire.” Instead, he wants civil rights groups in the Middle East to strengthen their ability to operate without social media. Many activists rely on social media to build their bases and spread their message. So, Meserole emphasized that as the authoritarian regimes increase their abilities to watch, manipulate, and censor social media, democratic governments should invest in technology that will help those who are fighting for civil rights encrypt their media or work outside of the surveillance of government.
Another concern of the guest speakers was the rise in online misinformation and the trend of authoritarian regimes making new accounts to promote their message rather than trying to censor the language of the opposition.
Some people wonder why these groups don’t just eliminate media within their countries. Meserole’s answer is that the government has it is own various benefits to having social media, and so they pass vague internet laws that allow them to have more legal control instead.
Former GOP Congressman and UK MP Highlight Dangers of Disinformation and Urge Regulation
Will Hurd and Member of Parliament Damien Collins say disinformation on social media platforms a worry in midterm elections.
WASHINGTON, January 11, 2022 – Former Republican Rep. Will Hurd said that disinformation campaigns could have a very concerning effect on the upcoming midterm elections.
He and the United Kingdom’s Member of Parliament Damien Collins urged new measures to hold tech and social media companies accountable for disinformation.
Hurd particularly expressed concern about how disinformation sows doubts about the legitimacy of the elections and effective treatments to the COVID-19 virus. The consequences of being misinformed on these topics is quite significant, he and Collins said Tuesday during a webinar hosted by the Washington Post.
The Texan Hurd said that the American 2020 election was the most secure the nation has ever had, and yet disinformation around it led to the insurrection at the Capitol.
The British Collins agreed that democratic elections are particularly at risk. Some increased risk comes from ever-present disinformation around COVID and its effects on public health and politics. “A lack of regulation online has left too many people vulnerable to abuse, fraud, violence, and in some cases even loss of life,” he said.
In regulating tech and media companies, Collins said citizens are reliant on whistleblowers, investigative journalists, and self-serving reports from companies that manipulate their data.
Unless government gets involved, they said, the nation will remain ignorant of the spread of disinformation.
Tech companies need to increase their transparency, even though that is something they are struggling to do.
Yet big tech companies are constantly conducting research and surveillance on their audience, the performance of their services, and the effect of their platforms. Yet they fail to share this information with the public, and he said that the public has a right to know the conclusions of these companies’ research.
In addition to increasing transparency and accountability, many lawmakers are attempting to grapple with the spread of disinformation. Some propose various changes to Section 230 of the Telecom Act of 1996.
Hurd said that the issues surrounding Section 230 will not be resolved before the midterm elections, and he recommended that policy-makers take steps outside of new legislation.
For example, the administration of President Joe Biden could lead its own federal reaction to misinformation to help citizens differentiate between fact and fiction, said Hurd.
Greene, Paul Social Media Developments Resurface Section 230 Debate
Five days into the new year and two developments bring Section 230 protections back into focus.
WASHINGTON, January 5, 2022 – The departure of Republican Kentucky Senator Rand Paul from YouTube and the banning of Georgia Republican Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene from Twitter at the beginning of a new year has rekindled a still lit flame of what lawmakers will do about Section 230 protections for Big Tech.
Paul removed himself Monday from the video-sharing platform after getting two strikes on his channel for violating the platform’s rules on Covid-19 misinformation, saying he is “[denying] my content to Big Tech…About half of the public leans right. If we all took our messaging to outlets of free exchange, we could cripple Big Tech in a heartbeat.”
Meanwhile, Greene has been permanently suspended from Twitter following repeated violations of Twitter’s terms of service. She has previously been rebuked by both her political opponents and allies for spreading fake news and mis/disinformation since she was elected in 2020. Her rap sheet includes being accused of spreading conspiracy theories promoting white supremacy and antisemitism.
It was ultimately the spreading of Covid-19 misinformation that got Greene permanently banned from Twitter on Sunday. She had received at least three previous “strikes” related to Covid-19 misinformation, according to New York Times. Greene received a fifth strike on Sunday, which resulted in her account’s permanent suspension.
Just five days into the new year, Greene’s situation – and the quickly-followed move by Paul – has reignited the tinderbox that is Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which shields big technology platforms from any liability from posts by their users.
As it stands now, Twitter is well within its rights to delete or suspend the accounts of any person who violates its terms of service. The right to free speech that is protected by the First Amendment does not prevent a private corporation, such as Twitter, from enforcing their rules.
In response to her Tweets, Texas Republican Congressman Dan Crenshaw called Greene a “liar and an idiot.” His comments notwithstanding, Crenshaw, like many conservative legislators, has argued that social media companies have become an integral part of the public forum and thus should not have the authority to unilaterally ban or censor voices on their platforms.
Some states, such as Texas and Florida, have gone as far as making it illegal for companies to ban political figures. Though Florida’s bill was quickly halted in the courts, that did not stop Texas from trying to enact similar laws (though they were met with similar results).
Crenshaw himself has proposed federal amendments to Section 230 for any “interactive computer service” that generates $3 billion or more in annual revenue or has 300 million or more monthly users.
The bill – which is still being drafted and does not have an official designation – would allow users to sue social media platforms for the removal of legal content based on political views, gender, ethnicity, and race. It would also make it illegal for these companies to remove any legal, user generated content from their website.
Under Crenshaw’s bill, a company such as Facebook or Twitter could be compelled to host any legal speech – objectionable or otherwise – at the risk of being sued. This includes overtly racist, sexist, or xenophobic slurs and rhetoric. While a hosting website might be morally opposed to being party to such kinds of speech, if said speech is not explicitly illegal, it would thus be protected from removal.
While Crenshaw would amend Section 230, other conservatives have advocated for its wholesale repeal. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, put forward Senate Bill 2972 which would do just that. If passed, the law would go into effect on the first day of 2024, with no replacement or protections in place to replace it.
Consequences of such legislation
This is a nightmare scenario for every company with an online presence that can host user generate content. If a repeal bill were to pass with no replacement legislation in place, every online company would suddenly become directly responsible for all user content hosted on their platforms.
With the repeal of Section 230, websites would default to being treated as publishers. If users upload illegal content to a website, it would be as if the company published the illegal content themselves.
This would likely exacerbate the issue of alleged censorship that Republicans are concerned about. The sheer volume of content generated on platforms like Reddit and YouTube would be too massive for a human moderating team to play a role in.
Companies would likely be forced to rely on heavier handed algorithms and bots to censor anything that could open them to legal liability.
Republicans are not alone in their criticism of Section 230, however. Democrats have also flirted with amending or abolishing Section 230, albeit for very different reasons.
Many Democrats believe that Big Tech uses Section 230 to deflect responsibility, and that if they are afforded protections by it, they will not adjust their content moderation policies to mitigate allegedly dangerous or hateful speech posted online by users with real-world consequences.
Some Democrats have written bills that would carve out numerous exemptions to Section 230. Some seek to address the sale of firearms online, others focus on the spread of Covid-19 misinformation.
Some Democrats have also introduced the Safe Tech Act, which would hold companies accountable for failing to “remove, restrict access to or availability of, or prevent dissemination of material that is likely to cause irreparable harm.”
The reality right now is that two parties are diametrically opposed on the issue of Section 230.
While Republicans believe there is unfair content moderation that disproportionately censors conservative voices, Democrats believe that Big Tech is not doing enough to moderate their content and keep users safe.
- Vague Social Media Laws Create Fear in the Middle East. Can Encryption Tools Help?
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