WASHINGTON, December 8, 2021 – Free speech advocates at an Atlantic Council event on Monday expressed concerned about how human rights laws can be applied to technology companies that possess enormous power over information that can endanger citizens.
The event was held on the same day victims of the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar sued Facebook in American and British courts for complicity in the human rights abuses that were precipitated by hatred stoked on Facebook.
Whereas traditionally, citizens of a democracy can hold their governments accountable for decisions related to transparency of information, it is more difficult to that now with big technology companies being the gatekeepers, according to Barbora Bukoská, Senior Director for Law and Policy of international human rights organization Article 19.
“On the internet, this is being more and more challenged because governments are no longer [the ones] who are in control of the information they hold about people,” said Bukoská. “More and more we see corporations, especially Big Tech, making decisions on a basis which we don’t know about.
“International human rights law was designed to limit the use of power and make those who are the most powerful in the society accountable to the people,” Bukoská added. “So that’s why now, with the internet, and different gatekeepers and power brokers – especially Big Tech – we need to really see how we can apply these [human rights] obligations on entities beyond the government.”
As social media continues to evolve and play an increasingly important role in society, experts argued that the way citizens hold corporations and their governments to account must evolve as well.
“It is a conversation. You have a right to know what information is produced, about how it is disseminated, how it is processed, what happens to it after you have generated it, to demand that it is handled with respect to your rights and your dignity, and to demand that it’s processed in a very specific transparent way,” said Nanjala Nyabola, nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab.
The panel was the first of a series of events that will run through December 8, as part of Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab’s annual 360/StratCom Summit.
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.
CES 2022: Patreon Policy Director Says Antitrust Regulators Need More Resources
To find the best way to regulate technology, antitrust regulators need more tools to maintain fairness in the digital economy.
LAS VEGAS, January 7, 2021 – The head of Patreon’s global policy team said federal regulators need more resources to stay informed about technology trends.
Laurent Crenshaw told CES 2022 participants Friday that Congress should provide tools for agencies like the Federal Trade Commission to enforce consumer protection standards.
“I’m not going to say that big tech needs to be broken up, but there should be appropriate resources for federal regulators to understand the digital marketplace,” he said. “We’re are still living in a world that is dominated by big actors, and we’re debating about whether to even give federal regulators the power to understand how the marketplace is moving toward digital.”
Crenshaw of Patreon said that more resources were necessary at the FTC in order to understand the digital marketplace. Patreon is a membership platform that provides a subscription service for creators to offer their followers.
Such resources would empower the agency to place appropriate safeguards for smaller technology innovators. “So in 10 [or] 20 years, it’s not just the replacements of the current Google, Apple, or Facebook, but something entirely new,” he said.
Panelists echoed Crenshaw’s point that consumer welfare should guide competition policy. Tyler Grimm, chief counsel for policy and strategy in the House Judiciary Committee, said that antitrust should bend to the consumer welfare standard. “Antitrust should leave in its wake a better economy,” he said.
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.
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