The Section 230 hearings: A sham on both sides

The Section 230 hearings: A sham on both sides

This morning Twitter’s Jack Dorsey, Alphabet/Google’s Sundar Pichai and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg testified in front of the US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. In another world, the “Does Section 230’s Sweeping Immunity Enable Big Tech Bad Behavior” hearing could have addressed serious issues with the power that tech and social media giants have over the news we get and our ability to freely publish.

Unfortunately we live in this world, where despite adversarial personal relationships these companies work in conjunction with the government regardless of who’s in charge of either side. As a side note, I live-tweeted most of it here if you want my immediate, somewhat scattered reactions.

What is Section 230?

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 simply states

(1) Treatment of publisher or speaker
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.

47 U.S. Code § 230(c)(1)

Pretty straightforward, actually: An internet service (think Facebook, Twitter, reddit or just any random blog that has comments on it) is acknowledged to not be the person responsible for the content that a user posts. Facebook can’t be held criminally liable for an illegal post you make – that’s on you.

The provider (website) still has to take down content that’s a federal crime, however. The awful 2018 FOSTA-SESTA Act also requires providers remove material violating state sex trafficking laws – which has done little to protect victims of trafficking but has seriously impacted sex workers’ ability to be safer.

(2) Civil Liability
No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be held liable on account of—

(A) any action voluntarily taken in good faith to restrict access to or availability of material that the provider or user considers to be obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable, whether or not such material is constitutionally protected; or

(B) any action taken to enable or make available to information content providers or others the technical means to restrict access to material described in paragraph (1).

47 U.S. Code § 230(c)(2)

The civil liability part of 230 gets a little more complicated. Providers, as they are not the government and therefore not covered under the First Amendment, can’t be held liable in a civil court if they remove content that they this is “obscene, lewd, lascivious…” et cetera. The “good faith” element goes beyond simple legality of the content.

*I am not a lawyer, this is not legal advice, etc, etc, etc. I hope that’s obvious.

The hearings weren’t really about Section 230. The Republicans used them as a platform to continue setting the public up to accept the idea that social media companies subverted the 2020 election. Democrats used them to blame Russia instead of themselves for 2016.

230 is not a perfect law and has been under serious attack for years, but it’s an important factor in how the Internet works. Imagine running your own blog/website and fearing that you’d be legally responsible for things that someone’s comments! Or, on a smaller scale if you’ve never run a blog – that you are responsible for everything other people comment on your Facebook posts.

The Hearings

If you just want a quick summary of today’s hearings, you can stop here:
Republicans: Censorship of conservative voices!
Democrats: You’re letting Russia win!
Republicans: We hate Iran and China!
Democrats: These hearings are ridiculous. Also, you’re letting Russia win!

The hearings weren’t really about Section 230. The Republicans used them as a platform to continue setting the public up to accept the idea that social media companies subverted the 2020 election. Democrats used them to blame Russia instead of themselves for 2016.

Republicans Shout About Censorship – And War

Nearly every Republican grilled Dorsey, Pichai and Zuckerberg about supposed anti-conservative bias in their fact-checking and moderation policies. Senators Thune, Blackburn and Johnson went in on the tech companies, asking if they have any conservatives on their moderation teams. None of the three were willing to straight up say “you’re living in some kind of fantasy land,” which isn’t surprising.

In response to a question from Senator Thune about “diversity” in the the political perspectives moderation teams, Pichai responds that they have “liberal, Republican and Libertarian” representation. Center, right and harder right. Those are the political wings that the state – and social media companies – see as acceptable. They are more terrified of a left-wing alternative than they are of the far right. There was almost no mention of the massive censorship of left-wing, progressive and anti-war voices, or suppression of alternative/non-US media.

Center, right and harder right are the political wings the state and social media companies see as acceptable.

Senator Blackburn later asked whether Blake Lemoine still worked at Google, singling out the engineer for the entire country. Blackburn is upset that Lemoine said some mean things about her on an internal Google chat. Whether they were in good taste or not, Lemoine’s criticism of Blackburn over SESTA-FOSTA weren’t even on social media.

When they weren’t pretending to know the political alignment of over 50,000 fact checkers over the various companies, Republicans took a more serious turn to war. Wicker took on Iran’s Khomeini in his introduction, condemning the Ayatollah’s support for Palestinian liberation. Senator Gardner then used Holocaust denial – a common theme on the far-right, in fact – to further demonize Iran.

Democrats Condemn Republicans – And Russia

There’s no way to expect anything other than seeing the US government and its allies using social media to push their narrative of war against “dangerous” China and Russia in particular. This goes for both sides. While Republicans focused on China and Iran, Democrats continued their usual yelling about Russia.

Senator Schatz started his comments by condemning the Republicans for holding this hearing 6 days before Election Day, and he wasn’t necessarily wrong to do so. Senators Udall and Duckworth later continued the trend. But they all – Duckworth in particular – appealed to patriotism and national defense.

Remember that in 2016-2017, Facebook vehemently denied that Russia had anything to do with influencing the US election. The Internet Research Agency spent about $100,000 in Facebook ads. Some of those ads weren’t even run until after the election. To compare, Donald Trump spent $44 million in June to November 2016, on top of all the free media coverage he got.

At one point each of the three were asked how many fact checkers they have. Zuckerberg reported that Facebook has more than 35,000 people – including contractors – in content & safety review. Pichai reported 10,000 people and also pointed out the use of Artificial Intelligence. Dorsey didn’t have numbers available. And none of the Democrats, those supposed friends of the workers, asked about the awful physical and emotional conditions many of the content moderators work under in the US and Philippines.

What about 230?

How did we get on war and imperialism from a hearing about 230?

Because it wasn’t really about Section 230. If it were, if we were truly addressing the massive power that social media and data giants have over our online experience, we’d have been talking about the addictive properties of social media. We’d be talking about how giant ad budgets drown out the voices of regular people and groups who have no money, corporate or state backing. We’d be talking about real “fake news” outlets, all of the mass media that feeds us talking points that happen to be in line with the State Department.

Section 230 is under attack, and we need to defend it. It’s clear that neither major party will actually play a role in doing so. It’s up to us.

Defend 230. Keep private corporations from deciding what speech is acceptable.