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Today, there’s another Congressional hearing on internet law older than Google: Section 230 of the Information Framework Act. Please don’t stop reading.
Odds are rules that won’t change. But it’s still worth talking about Season 230 as it backs the big questions: Would more speeches be better and who decides? We shouldn’t something About the giant internet companies? And who is responsible when bad things happen online that lead to people getting hurt, or even killed?
Let me try to explain what the law is, what is actually at stake, and suggestions for fixing it.
What is Section 230? The 26-word law allows websites to make rules about what people can or can’t post without being liable (for the most part) for the content.
If I accuse you of murder on Facebook, you can sue me, but you can’t sue Facebook. If you buy a defective toy from a seller on Amazon, you can take the seller to court, but not Amazon. (There is some legal debate about this, but you get the gist.)
This law has made it possible for Facebook, Yelp and Airbnb to give people a voice without being sued. But Republicans and Democrats are now questioning whether the law gives technology companies too much power or too little responsibility for what happens under their watch.
In general, Republicans worry that Section 230 gives internet companies too much time to stop what people say online. Democrats believe it allows internet companies unable to effectively stop illegal drug sales or stop extremists from organizing violence.
What is the war about, really: Everything. Our worries are now projected 26 words.
Season 230 is a proxy fight for our annoyance with Facebook and Twitter having the power to silence the US president or a high school student who has nowhere else to turn. The battle for the law reflects our fear that people can lie online with no apparent effect. And it is everyone’s desire to take responsibility when what happens online causes irreparable damage.
You should question whether Section 230 removes incentives for online companies to take steps to prevent people from defaming people they dislike or block channels that facilitate drug sales. And likewise, it makes sense to ask whether the problem is really what people want someone, anyone – a breaking law or an unscrupulous internet company – to blame bad things people do on each other.
One theme of Thursday’s congressional hearing is multiple proposed bills to amend Section 230, mostly around the edges. My colleague David McCabe helped me categorize suggestions into two (slightly overlapping) groups.
Troubleshooting Plan 1: Raising the bar. Some lawmakers want online companies to meet certain conditions before they receive Section 230 legal protections.
One example: A congressional proposal would require internet companies to report to law enforcement when they believe people may be plotting a violent crime or drug crime. If companies fail to do so, they could lose Section 230 legal protections and flood could unleash lawsuits.
Facebook this week advocated a similar idea, proposing that they and other major online companies would have systems in place to identify and remove potentially illegal documents.
Another proposed bill would require Facebook, Google and others to demonstrate that they did not show political bias in deleting a post. Some Republicans said Section 230 requires websites to be politically neutral. Measurement is not true.
Troubleshooting Plan 2: Create more exceptions. One proposal would restrict internet companies from using Section 230 as a safeguard in legal cases involving activities such as civil rights infringement, harassment and unfair death. Another suggested allowing people to sue internet companies if child molestation imagery went viral on their website.
Also in this category are legal questions about whether Section 230 applies to the participation of an internet company’s own computer system. As Facebook’s algorithms help spread propaganda information from Hamas, as David detailed in an article, some legal experts and lawmakers say that the legal protections under Section 230 are not should be adopted and the company should be complicit in the acts of terrorism.
(Slate detailed all proposed measures to change Section 230.)
There is no denying that by connecting the world, the internet as we know it empowers people to do many good things – and no less harm. This law war contains a lot. “All of this comes from disappointment,” David told me.
Before we go …
Amazon’s difficult political balancing act: David’s latest article examines how Amazon is trying to maintain the good views of Democratic Party leaders in Washington while at the same time undermining the coalition dynamics many Democrats have supported. (Also, one of Amazon’s senior executives choose a fight on Twitter with Senator Bernie Sanders.)
Math lessons for your child (and you): The Wall Street Journal explains some of the educational apps and services that can help families with math homework, lessons, and tutoring. An example: You can take a picture of a math equation and Photomath will give you the answer with instructions on how to solve it.
The Pentagon took three weeks to produce a bad meme: Vice News has details about how the Department of Defense staff created a visual online joke about Russians, malware, and possibly Halloween candies? The meme isn’t funny, it took 22 days to create and it’s only been retweeted 190 times.
Dolphin! In New York’s East River! It’s strange! (But that doesn’t seem too weird. Here’s more detailed info on seeing dolphins around Manhattan.)
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