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Big Tech

American Innovation and Choice Online Act Has Panelists Divided on Small Business Impact

The bill is intended to prohibit product preferences on tech platforms, with some saying it could harm small companies dependent on those platforms.

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Panel at CSIS event on Thursday

WASHINGTON, July 6, 2022 – Observers are still divided about the effect on small business of legislation that is intended to keep large technology platforms from giving preference to their own products over others.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies hosted experts last month to discuss the American Innovation and Choice Online Act, which was introduced in January. The event heard both support for the bill, as well as concern that it could negatively impact smaller businesses that rely on the larger platforms.

“Existing antitrust law is not going to be enough to rein in the power of the largest tech platforms,” Charlotte Slaiman, competition policy director at public interest group Public Knowledge, said, adding the AICOA is very important for small business competition “to get a fair shot.”

“Fundamentally this is a really important…for competition because this protects small companies that are potential competitors against one of these large platforms,” she added.

Krisztian Katona, vice president of global competition and regulatory policy at the Computer & Communications Industry Association, however, said that after performing a cost-benefit analysis of AICOA, he expects the legislation will hurt business competition.

He said that the legislation would increase operating costs for smaller companies and force these companies to reduce the cost of their services. He predicts that close to 100 companies by 2030 would be negatively impacted by the legislation if it becomes law.

Others agree with Katona. A report in March by the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Council said small business owners felt the AICOA could be detrimental to them, saying it could increase prices. Meanwhile Michael Petricone, senior vice president of the Consumer Technology Association, said in June that small businesses would be affected the most by big tech regulation because they depend on those platforms.

Reporter Riley Haight studied sociology at Brigham Young University. She has a passion for human rights and effective communication. She embraces the opportunity to learn and interact with those from diverse backgrounds.

Social Media

Jim Jordan Demands Social Media Documents from Biden Administration

Two Republican-led states sued the Biden administration over alleged collusion with tech companies.

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Photo of Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, by Gage Skidmore used with permission

WASHINGTON, February 8, 2023 — House Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, on Wednesday asked the Department of Justice to provide copies of all documents that have been produced in an ongoing lawsuit over alleged government collusion with social media companies.

“Congress has an important interest in protecting and advancing fundamental free speech principles, including by examining how the Executive Branch coordinates with or coerces private actors to suppress First Amendment-protected speech,” Jordan wrote in a letter to Brian Boynton, the principal deputy assistant attorney general in the civil division.

The attorneys general of Missouri and Louisiana filed suit against President Joe Biden and other government officials in May 2022, claiming that the administration had worked with tech companies to “censor free speech and propagandize the masses.”

Other officials named in the lawsuit include former White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy and former Chief Medical Advisor Anthony Fauci. The suit also names the Department of Homeland Security and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, among other individuals and agencies.

Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey in January released a series of emails between White House officials and social media companies, arguing that they proved the Biden administration had been attempting to “censor opposing viewpoints on major social media platforms.”

Jordan requested that all other documents produced by the Department of Justice as part of the litigation be provided to the Judiciary Committee no later than Feb. 22.

“As Congress continues to examine how to best protect Americans’ fundamental freedoms, the documents discovered and produced during the Missouri v. Biden litigation are necessary to assist Congress in understanding the problem and evaluating potential legislative reforms,” he wrote.

Jordan is at the forefront of growing Republican hostility toward tech companies. In January, he listed “reining in Big Tech’s censorship of free speech” as a key issue to be addressed by the House Judiciary Committee during the coming year.

And in December, Jordan sent letters to the heads of Apple, Amazon, Alphabet, Meta and Microsoft to “request more information about the nature and extent of your companies’ collusion with the Biden Administration.”

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Artificial Intelligence

Automated Content Moderation’s Main Problem is Subjectivity, Not Accuracy, Expert Says

With millions of pieces of content generated daily, platforms are increasingly relying on AI for moderation.

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Screenshot of American Enterprise Institute event

WASHINGTON, February 2, 2023 — The vast quantity of online content generated daily will likely drive platforms to increasingly rely on artificial intelligence for content moderation, making it critically important to understand the technology’s limitations, according to an industry expert.

Despite the ongoing culture war over content moderation, the practice is largely driven by financial incentives — so even companies with “a speech-maximizing set of values” will likely find some amount of moderation unavoidable, said Alex Feerst, CEO of Murmuration Labs, at a Jan. 25 American Enterprise Institute event. Murmuration Labs works with tech companies to develop online trust and safety products, policies and operations.

If a piece of online content could potentially lead to hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees, a company is “highly incentivized to err on the side of taking things down,” Feerst said. And even beyond legal liability, if the presence of certain content will alienate a substantial number of users and advertisers, companies have financial motivation to remove it.

However, a major challenge for content moderation is the sheer quantity of user-generated online content — which, on the average day, includes 500 million new tweets, 700 million Facebook comments and 720,000 hours of video uploaded to YouTube.

“The fully loaded cost of running a platform includes making millions of speech adjudications per day,” Feerst said.

“If you think about the enormity of that cost, very quickly you get to the point of, ‘Even if we’re doing very skillful outsourcing with great accuracy, we’re going to need automation to make the number of daily adjudications that we seem to need in order to process all of the speech that everybody is putting online and all of the disputes that are arising.’”

Automated moderation is not just a theoretical future question. In a March 2021 congressional hearing, Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified that “more than 95 percent of the hate speech that we take down is done by an AI and not by a person… And I think it’s 98 or 99 percent of the terrorist content.”

Dealing with subjective content

But although AI can help manage the volume of user-generated content, it can’t solve one of the key problems of moderation: Beyond a limited amount of clearly illegal material, most decisions are subjective.

Much of the debate surrounding automated content moderation mistakenly presents subjectivity problems as accuracy problems, Feerst said.

For example, much of what is generally considered “hate speech” is not technically illegal, but many platforms’ terms of service prohibit such content. With these extrajudicial rules, there is often room for broad disagreement over whether any particular piece of content is a violation.

“AI cannot solve that human subjective disagreement problem,” Feerst said. “All it can do is more efficiently multiply this problem.”

This multiplication becomes problematic when AI models are replicating and amplifying human biases, which was the basis for the Federal Trade Commission’s June 2022 report warning Congress to avoid overreliance on AI.

“Nobody should treat AI as the solution to the spread of harmful online content,” said Samuel Levine, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, in a statement announcing the report. “Combatting online harm requires a broad societal effort, not an overly optimistic belief that new technology — which can be both helpful and dangerous — will take these problems off our hands.”

The FTC’s report pointed to multiple studies revealing bias in automated hate speech detection models, often as a result of being trained on unrepresentative and discriminatory data sets.

As moderation processes become increasingly automated, Feerst predicted that the “trend of those problems being amplified and becoming less possible to discern seems very likely.”

Given those dangers, Feerst emphasized the urgency of understanding and then working to resolve AI’s limitations, noting that the demand for content moderation will not go away. To some extent, speech disputes are “just humans being human… you’re never going to get it down to zero,” he said.

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Social Media

Must Internet Platforms Host Objectionable Content? Appeals Courts Consider ‘Must Carry’ Rules

Court decisions on Texas and Florida “must-carry” laws disagreed on whether online platforms should be regulated as common carriers.

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Photo of Reese Schonfeld, President of Cable News Network and Reynelda Nuse, weekend anchorwoman for CNN, stand at a set at the broadcast center in Atlanta in May 1980.

WASHINGTON, January 30, 2023 — As the Supreme Court prepares to hear a pair of cases about online platform liability, it is also considering a separate pair of social media lawsuits that aim to push content moderation practices in the opposite direction, adding additional questions about the First Amendment and common carrier status to an already complicated issue.

The “must-carry” laws in Texas and Florida, both aimed at limiting online content moderation, met with mixed decisions in appeals courts after being challenged by tech industry groups NetChoice and the Computer & Communications Industry Association. The outcomes will likely end up “affecting millions of Americans and their ability to express themselves online,” said Chris Marchese, counsel at NetChoice, at a Broadband Breakfast Live Online event on Wednesday.

In September, a federal appeals court in the Fifth Circuit upheld the Texas law, ruling that social media platforms can be regulated as “common carriers,” or required to carry editorial programming as were cable television operators in the Turner Broadcasting System v. FCC decisions from the 1990s.

Dueling appeals court interpretations

By contrast, the judges overturning the Florida ruling held that social media platforms are not common carriers. Even if they were, the 11th Circuit Court judges held, “neither law nor logic recognizes government authority to strip an entity of its First Amendment rights merely by labeling it a common carrier.”

Whether social media platforms should be treated like common carriers is “a fair question to ask,” said Marshall Van Alstyne, Questrom chair professor at Boston University. It would be difficult to reach a broad audience online without utilizing one of the major platforms, he claimed.

However, Marchese argued that in the Texas ruling, the Fifth Circuit “to put it politely, ignored decades of binding precedent.” First Amendment protections have previously been extended to “what we today might think of as common carriers,” he said.

“I think we can safely say that Texas and Florida do not have the ability to force our private businesses to carry political speech or any type of speech that they don’t see fit,” Marchese said.

Ari Cohn, free speech counsel at TechFreedom, disagreed with the common carrier classification altogether, referencing an amicus brief arguing that “social media and common carriage are irreconcilable concepts,” filed by TechFreedom in the Texas case.

Similar ‘must-carry’ laws are gaining traction in other states

While the two state laws have the same general purpose of limiting moderation, their specific restrictions differ. The Texas law would ban large platforms from any content moderation based on “viewpoint.” Critics have argued that the term is so vague that it could prevent moderation entirely.

“In other words, if a social media service allows coverage of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it would also be forced to disseminate Russian propaganda about the war,” Marchese said. “So if you allow conversation on a topic, then you must allow all viewpoints on that topic, no matter how horrendous those viewpoints are.”

The Florida law “would require covered entities — including ones that you wouldn’t necessarily think of, like Etsy — to host all or nearly all content from so-called ‘journalistic enterprises,’ which is basically defined as anybody who has a small following on the internet,” Marchese explained. The law also prohibits taking down any speech from political candidates.

The impact of the two cases will likely be felt far beyond those two states, as dozens of similar content moderation bills have already been proposed in states across the country, according to Ali Sternburg, vice president of information policy for the CCIA.

But for now, both laws are blocked while the Supreme Court decides whether to hear the cases. On Jan. 23, the court asked for the U.S. solicitor general’s input on the decision.

“I think this was their chance to buy time because in effect, so many of these cases are actually asking the court to do opposite things,” Van Alstyne said.

Separate set of cases calls for more, not less, moderation

In February, the Supreme Court will hear two cases that effectively argue the reverse of the Texas and Florida laws by alleging that social media platforms are not doing enough to remove harmful content.

The cases were brought against Twitter and Google by family members of terror attack victims, who argue that the platforms knowingly allowed terrorist groups to spread harmful content and coordinate attacks. One case specifically looks at YouTube’s recommendation algorithms, asking whether Google can be held liable for not only hosting but promoting terrorist content.

Algorithms have become “the new boogeyman” in ongoing technology debates, but they essentially act like mirrors, determining content recommendations based on what users have searched for, engaged with and said about themselves, Cohn explained.

Reese Schonfeld, President of Cable News Network and Reynelda Nuse, weekend anchorwoman for CNN, stand at one of the many sets at the broadcast center in Atlanta on May 31, 1980. The network, owned by Ted Turner, began it’s 24-hour-a-day news broadcasts on Sunday in the afternoon. (AP Photo/Joe Holloway used with permission.)

“This has been litigated in a number of different contexts, and in pretty much all of them, the courts have said we can’t impose liability for the communication of bad ideas,” Cohn said. “You hold the person who commits the wrongful act responsible, and that’s it. There’s no such thing as negligently pointing to someone to bad information.”

A better alternative to reforming Section 230 would be implementing “more disclosures and transparency specifically around how algorithms are developed and data about enforcement,” said Jessica Dheere, director of Ranking Digital Rights.

Social media platforms have a business incentive to take down terrorist content, and Section 230 is what allows them to do so without over-moderating, Sternberg said. “No one wants to see this horrible extremist content on digital platforms, especially the services themselves.”

Holding platforms liable for all speech that they carry could have a chilling effect on speech by motivating platforms to err on the side of removing content, Van Alstyne said.

Our Broadband Breakfast Live Online events take place on Wednesday at 12 Noon ET. Watch the event on Broadband Breakfast, or REGISTER HERE to join the conversation.

Wednesday, January 25, 2023, 12 Noon ET – Section 230, Google, Twitter and the Supreme Court

The Supreme Court will soon hear two blockbuster cases involving Section 230 of the Telecommunications Act: Gonzalez v. Google on February 21, and  Twitter v. Taamneh on February 22. Both of these cases ask if tech companies can be held liable for terrorist content on their platforms. Also in play: Laws in Florida and in Texas (both on hold during the course of litigation) that would limit online platforms’ ability to moderate content. In a recent brief, Google argued that denying Section 230 protections for platforms “could have devastating spillover effects.” In advance of Broadband Breakfast’s Big Tech & Speech Summit on March 9, this Broadband Breakfast Live Online event will consider Section 230 and the Supreme Court.

Panelists:

  • Chris Marchese, Counsel, NetChoice
  • Ari Cohn, Free Speech Counsel, TechFreedom
  • Jessica Dheere, Director, Ranking Digital Rights
  • Ali Sternburg, Vice President of Information Policy, Computer & Communications Industry Association
  • Marshall Van Alstyne, Questrom Chair Professor, Boston University
  • Drew Clark (moderator), Editor and Publisher, Broadband Breakfast

Panelist resources:

Chris Marchese analyzes technology-related legislative and regulatory issues at both the federal and state level. His portfolio includes monitoring and analyzing proposals to amend Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, antitrust enforcement, and potential barriers to free speech and free enterprise on the internet. Before joining NetChoice in 2019, Chris worked as a law clerk at the U.S. Chamber Litigation Center, where he analyzed legal issues relevant to the business community, including state-court decisions that threatened traditional liability rules.

Ari Cohn is Free Speech Counsel at TechFreedom. A nationally recognized expert in First Amendment law, he was previously the Director of the Individual Rights Defense Program at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), and has worked in private practice at Mayer Brown LLP and as a solo practitioner, and was an attorney with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. Ari graduated cum laude from Cornell Law School, and earned his Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Jessica Dheere is the director of Ranking Digital Rights, and co-authored RDR’s spring 2020 report “Getting to the Source of Infodemics: It’s the Business Model.” An affiliate at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, she is also founder, former executive director, and board member of the Arab digital rights organization SMEX, and in 2019, she launched the CYRILLA Collaborative, which catalogs global digital rights law and case law. She is a graduate of Princeton University and the New School.

Ali Sternburg is Vice President of Information Policy at the Computer & Communications Industry Association, where she focuses on intermediary liability, copyright, and other areas of intellectual property. Ali joined CCIA during law school in 2011, and previously served as Senior Policy Counsel, Policy Counsel, and Legal Fellow. She is also an Inaugural Fellow at the Internet Law & Policy Foundry.

Marshall Van Alstyne (@InfoEcon) is the Questrom Chair Professor at Boston University. His work explores how IT affects firms, innovation, and society with an emphasis on business platforms. He co-authored the international best seller Platform Revolution and his research influence ranks among the top 2% of all scientists globally.

Drew Clark (moderator) is CEO of Breakfast Media LLC. He has led the Broadband Breakfast community since 2008. An early proponent of better broadband, better lives, he initially founded the Broadband Census crowdsourcing campaign for broadband data. As Editor and Publisher, Clark presides over the leading media company advocating for higher-capacity internet everywhere through topical, timely and intelligent coverage. Clark also served as head of the Partnership for a Connected Illinois, a state broadband initiative.

WATCH HERE, or on YouTubeTwitter and Facebook.

As with all Broadband Breakfast Live Online events, the FREE webcasts will take place at 12 Noon ET on Wednesday.

SUBSCRIBE to the Broadband Breakfast YouTube channel. That way, you will be notified when events go live. Watch on YouTubeTwitter and Facebook

See a complete list of upcoming and past Broadband Breakfast Live Online events.

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