Social media companies and user accountability

posted by Jeff | Thursday, January 28, 2021, 8:00 PM | comments: 0

The great social media banhammer against Donald Trump was understandably met with concern, because it raises all kinds of questions about the power of these companies relative to public discourse. (And for the record, I'm not talking about aggrieved Fox News commentators who are worried about their follower counts, because, you know, there are actual newsworthy things happening in the world.) I wrote previously about how free speech works on the Internet, and the executive summary is that anyone can put something on the Internet, but the platforms you use are owned by private companies and you have to play by their rules. Remember: The First Amendment is about government restricting your speech, and that has nothing to do with what a business that facilitates Internet discussion does.

Online services have since the start had terms of service that they expected users to live by. Back in the day when the Internet was more of a curiosity than an essential tool, the stakes for these terms were higher. If someone posted something on your service that caused harm to others, you could be held liable for that. That's what Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act addressed, shielding the service operators from getting sued for something someone else posted. The reason that's important is that, without that provision in the law, the surface exposure for liability was too high to operate. I can tell you for sure that it was discussed a great deal when small publishers like me were trying to figure out if we needed some kind of general liability insurance. Still, it doesn't mean that you can knowingly host harmful or illegal things without consequence. You can't be a haven for child porn or copyrighted material, for example.

It's puzzling that Trump wanted that section of the law repealed, because it has nothing to do with the alleged bias against "conservative" voices. Section 230 is the reason he had a voice at all on Twitter for as long as he did, because Twitter couldn't be held responsible if, for example, the president incited insurrection. But then, he clearly hasn't read the Constitution, so a specific law like this didn't have a chance of being read. And again, the courts have said repeatedly that the First Amendment is not applied to a service not run by government, and, in fact, forcing any kind of neutrality in moderation of these services using the law would be unconstitutional.

Twitter, Facebook and YouTube have always had rules against hate speech, illegal activity, threatening others, etc. These companies have banned users for far less severe reasons than anything Trump has posted, but they decided it was in the public interest to not enforce those rules for national leaders. Think about the message this sends, and how paradoxically it aligns with the actions and words of aggrieved Trump allies: It says that Trump isn't subject to the same rules as everyone else.

Ultimately, the world of social interaction on the Internet, the people running these companies, decided that it was better to not hold users, all users, including Trump, to the same accountability standards, largely in fear of being perceived as unfair arbiters of truth and free expression. So concerned were these business leaders about that perception that it took insurrection of the US government to get them to act. And what I find so crazy about this is that, since the ban, even Twitter seems to be less of a shitshow than it usually is. (YouTube comments are still, unsurprisingly, a dumpster fire for other reasons.) If "big tech" wants to be "neutral," it has to start with applying the same standards to all people, and frankly if online communities won't hold each other to high moral standards for truth and honesty, I don't care if the Twitter steps in. It's their company, to do as they see fit, and if conservatives are all about "letting the market decide," then Twitter is free to do as it wishes. If the market disagrees, cool, it can move on or someone can build something else. But as we saw with Parler, it's not that simple. You might be shielded from civil suits if you allow posts threatening violence to live on your system, but the people who own the pipes may not be so willing to do so, not out of political bias, but out of a desire to not be associated with that as it would be bad for the rest of their business.

For the record, I think that the Google-Facebook advertising duopoly is bad for consumers and the world. I've stated that countless times. But if you want me to get onboard to agree that they're complicit of bias or something else, no, that's not going to happen. They're definitely at fault for something, but it's mostly for not holding elected people to the same accountability that all of their users are.


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