By Jim Norman
While much of the world is focused on the atrocities of the Russian war against Ukraine, and many Americans worry about high gasoline prices and a wildly fluctuating stock market, I decided to take a break from all that and watch a two-year-old Netflix docudrama called “The Social Dilemma.”
Spoiler alert: It’s a compelling argument for the proposition that social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and the IT giant Google are demonstrably bad for our health and shockingly addictive. What’s worse, they are corrosively anti-democratic forces, which if left unregulated will soon lead to the end of the democratic experiment in America, according to the film’s argument.
Most shocking of all, however, is that, thinking about the implications of that movie, I find myself in agreement with two of the most detestable American political figures that have ever dragged their slime-covered knuckles through the fertile soil of my 80-year-old memory: Donald Trump and Josh Hawley.
Yes, Donald Trump, the disgraced and soundly defeated former president who tried through a campaign of lies to persuade a gullible mob to overthrow democratic government on January 6, 2021; and Josh Hawley, the Missouri senator and Trump toady who raised a clenched-fist salute of encouragement to that crowd of violent insurrectionists as they gathered to storm the Capitol on that day.
What? I hear you exclaim in disbelief. How could you agree with anything at all that those two irredeemably dishonest politicians stand for? What could they have possibly said that would have you nodding in agreement?
Complete immunity from any accountability
It’s this: Both Trump and Hawley, for all the wrong and most hypocritical reasons, of course, have gone on record in favoring government regulation of the technology giants’ complete immunity from any accountability for the harm they do. Now, of course, Trump was just throwing a characteristic hissy-fit because he was barred by federal law from suing companies that he said were violating his right to free speech when they blocked some of his lies. And Hawley was just doing what toadies do best when he voiced his support for Trump’s position.
Still, they had a point when they complained about Section 230 of the federal Communications Decency Act, which gives almost complete protection from lawsuits against online companies to hold them liable for harm done by content created by users of their Internet services.
So, let’s say, not-so-hypothetically, that an aggrieved parent can make a good case that online content led directly to the death of a child, and let’s say that through discovery the parent’s lawyer can prove that the tech giant running the platform where the content appeared knew very well that such content would have that impact.
Section 230 states: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”
Law predates Google
How did giant Internet platforms get such broad protection from accountability? The answer is that they weren’t always such behemoths. In 1996, when Congress passed that law to give fledgling and struggling Internet start-ups a helping hand, Google didn’t even exist, and Mark Zuckerberg, the guy who would someday found Facebook, was just an 11-year-old kid.
Now, however, evil-doers easily use Internet platforms to spread lies, hatred, antisemitic and racist screeds, and calls to action that can and do galvanize and organize malcontents to come together in waves of violence that threaten to rip our society apart. Section 230 is what gives the platforms legal cover and provides no incentive to block such content; they simply can’t be sued for the harm that is caused. And even when they do take small steps to block harmful content, it just pops up elsewhere, on fringe web sites known to be welcoming havens for it.
So-called “free market” advocates have long argued that markets and entities like social media platforms need no outside regulation; they are capable of regulating themselves and if they fail to do so and harm results, well, the inevitable lawsuits and resulting accountability and liability will help them see the light and provide incentive for them to do the right thing.
It’s time to get rid of Section 230
The problem, of course, is that the same people who propound these attractive arguments against government regulation are the people who support legislation blocking litigation to assign accountability and determine liability.
The protection provided by Section 230 is not absolute: Internet platforms can and have been held liable for harmful and criminal content such as child pornography and violations of intellectual property protections. And without Section 230 protecting them in these areas, they have shown themselves to be pretty good at policing themselves.
It’s time to give our increasingly fragile democracy the same consideration and protection as we do vulnerable children and intellectual property. It’s time to get rid of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.
Jim Norman is president of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County.