back to article For years, the internet giants have held on dear to their get-out-of-jail-free card. Here are those trying to take that away

The simmering debate over legal immunity given to online platforms like Facebook and Google in America has grown hotter with a new report from the Department of Justice outlining changes it hopes to make to the rules. In addition, just today, Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) has outlined his planned legislation for changes to …

  1. starter

    Thank you for the well written informative article.

  2. Flocke Kroes Silver badge

    If only...

    ... there weren't a pile of laws, technical and financial barriers and a fire breathing dragon preventing people from creating their own websites to put up content that twitter considers fake, offensive or an incitement to violence.

    Hawley's proposal at least has the benefit of forcing twitter to enforce their own policy and terminate Trump's account.

    1. Khaptain Silver badge

      Re: If only...

      Twitter already enforce their own policy, it is just not a very good one, let's just say that is appears to be towards the radical left.

      1. Snake Silver badge

        Re: Radical left

        Do you people ever get tired of forcing your head up your own rear ends?? "Radical left". Any person with any form of FUNCTIONAL BRAIN CAPACITY only needs to do a search of Twitter and Facebook, via internal or external engines, to see exactly WHOM is the more prolific, vitriolic poster - the "radical left", or [your] "rabid right".

        We'll wait here and see if you reply truthfully with your results.

    2. phogan

      Re: If only...

      Hawley's law (and likely Barr's suggestion) likely wouldn't survive a legal challenge. Government benefits as way to regulate expression are a big no no, and moderation decisions are protected by the first amendment.

      All removing Section 230 protection does is open every post and moderation decision to a hecklers veto from lawyers.

      1. Khaptain Silver badge

        Re: If only...

        Better the lawyers than Jack Dorsey.. and that's saying something.

  3. aki009

    If you abuse a privilege it might be taken away from you. I guess these companies are about to find out what that means.

    1. phogan

      On things for it wont be what Trump and Barr want. Political neutrality for immunity hasn't got a chance. They'll just censor more material in response to anyone that can muster a convincing cease and desist and probably automate it.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Yet it is unlikely they will comply and ban Trump, who is the one actively trying to abuse privilege.

    3. Graham Cobb

      There is no "privilege". All 230 does is stop the US court system being abused. It specifies two key things:

      1) If you don't like something someone says on Twitter you have to sue that person, not Twitter. That seems obvious to us in the UK but is not what normally happens in the US: in the US you don't sue the person responsible, you sue the person with most money! As the US court system is so expensive and so unpredictable, everyone prefers to sue companies with deep pockets as they are more likely to just settle and there is a chance of getting a massive payout. 230 forces people to sue the person who wrote the tweet instead, meaning many, many fewer cases.

      2) If Twitter moderates your tweet, they can't be sued for their decision. That is the only thing that keeps Twitter from being much, much, much worse. Without that protection, Twitter will have a moderation policy that just says something like "we take down tweets that are terrorist or child porn related and that is it" and will not be able to delete anything else.

      Even worse, the very biggest social media companies can afford enough lawyers, and large enough moderation teams, to maybe handle life without Section 230. But there will never be a new social media company: no startup can live with these two changes.

      With the current law, if you want to create a right wing or left wing social media company you can do it. And when it becomes big you can use it further your views. But with these changes, this is it. You can't grow a new social media company so we are all stuck with whatever the views are of Twitter, Google, Facebook.

      1. a_yank_lurker Silver badge

        The original intent of Section 230 was pretty much point 2. The idea was to allow some very limited moderation of comments without being considered the publisher. If the site is considered the publisher the implication is they are required to exercise more explicit editorial control. By not exercising editorial control of the comments, without Section 230, they would be legitimate target in a lawsuit.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          But now what we're seeing is Twitter et al are saying to sue the actual content maker. Trouble is, many of the trolls are using false or stolen identities specifically to avoid the sueball, so it's like two men running for the catch, only for neither of them to take it and the ball drops. Section 230 doesn't cover what happens when (not if) the poster of bad content is using a fake or stolen identity. What's needed is either a fallback liability (if say Twitter can't provide the actual identity, they become the owner of the content by default), or a legal obligation to verify posters (which raises Big Brother issues).

          1. Khaptain Silver badge

            If Twitter remain objective then they can't be sued, it's when they take a political stance that makes things interesting because then they become a lobbying party and as such need to be held accountable.

            1. Charles 9 Silver badge

              The problem becomes when an issue has no gray area: when it becomes strictly "for-or-against". Objectivity is impossible here as you'll just be hounded as being against: usually both sides at once.

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Censorship is bad mmkay

    Anyone who has their posts taken down will inevitably cite Free Speech. The correct response to harmful content is to drown it in white noise. Social networks should make an effort to surround those hateful, loaded, or misinformed opinions with competing opinions from the opposite end of the spectrum. For example if "planes make chemtrails" then automatically follow it with "learning science will make you sexy" - both equally untrue but one balances the other. For another example, "doughnuts are nice" is pretty moderate so a counter argument might just be "pancakes are nice too".

    1. Graham Cunningham

      Re: Censorship is bad mmkay

      Have an upvote, but... automated flame wars?

    2. Flocke Kroes Silver badge

      Re: Censorship is bad mmkay

      Noddy's guide to free speech: The first amendment is to prevent the US government from controlling what you can or cannot say. Twitter is not the US government so they can delete any comment they do not like from their web site. Trump is the US government. He can howl, scream and create a storm in a teacup but he cannot create legislation. Congress can create legislation but as a part of the US government they are limited by the first amendment and cannot prevent Twiiter from pointing out when Trump lies.

      If delusional idiots hire a cracker to deface your website with flat Earth rubbish you can legally restore your site from backups. Unless you are the US government, it is not a free speech issue and the flat Earthers would get thrown out of court promptly if they claimed you were denying their first amendment rights. (If you are the US government there are still plenty of legal options for you to get other people's rubbish off your website).

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Censorship is bad mmkay

        "If you are the US government there are still plenty of legal options"

        You mean such as supporting and using privately owned social media firms to first aggregate public communications, and then track/profile/censor them?

        1. Flocke Kroes Silver badge

          Re: Censorship is bad mmkay

          I mean that if someone defaces a US government website the US government can put it back how it was without fear of that person going to court, shouting "Help! Help! I am being oppressed!" and successfully getting any kind of judgement against the government.

      2. DemeterLast

        Re: Censorship is bad mmkay

        Section 230 was largely meant to be protections for carriers. In the same way AT&T couldn't be held responsible for a phone call arranging a hit on your ex-wife, AOL can't be held responsible if BigEarl82 sends an email to Bill Clinton threatening to bone his dog. 1996 was a weird time.

        1996 was also a long time ago. The spirit of the law was to allow the Internet to grow under the auspices of American free speech values, with lots of companies all competing for eyeballs and users. Unless you were doing something obviously illegal or onerously disrupting, BigEarl82 could yammer away on the evils of left-handed gingers on Usenet if he wanted to.

        Where it gets dicey now is Section 230 is bumping up against past court decisions that say that public facilities cannot discriminate. You can't put a sign up at your bowling alley that bans left-handed gingers (though they are evil and probably deserve it) because you offer general access to the public; i.e. you're not a private club. Due to the nature of the modern Internet, a handful of very large, very powerful, and very wealthy corporations control large swathes of the Internet. Should these corporations be held to the same standard as the bowling alley?

        I'm a bit afraid of any meddling with the existing law. Any attempt to modify it will certainly be rife with unintended consequences, and no doubt the wealthy corporate big players will beaver away at making the new law beneficial to them in some way. For example, including some kind of compliance requirement that a small player would find financially ruinous, but Google can absorb with ease. What we call "regulatory capture" in the States.

        A better solution, with a long history of success, is to break up the monopolies. Monopolies are not intrinsically bad, and can in fact be pretty good (Ma Bell's laboratories did a lot of great research and development), but they put too much control in the hands of an largely unaccountable corporation. Whether Trump gets his Tweeters put on the naughty step is a sideshow to the real problem.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Censorship is bad mmkay

          "A better solution, with a long history of success, is to break up the monopolies."

          Problem is, broken monopolies don't stay broken. Soon after Ma Bell was broken up, they started coming back together again. And meanwhile, these "Baby Bells" picked up new tricks like cell phone, Internet, and even television, meaning when they became the likes of Verizon and the new AT&T, they're even bigger than Ma Bell was originally. Worse, they're savvy enough to not let the same trick happen twice. They keep receptive ears in Washington now.

        2. RM Myers Bronze badge
          Pint

          Re: Censorship is bad mmkay

          DemeterLast - well thought out, well reasoned, and well written. Not necessarily what I expect to find on the internet, but I'm definitely impressed. Have one on me ==>

    3. Smooth Newt Silver badge
      Megaphone

      Re: Censorship is bad mmkay

      Social networks should make an effort to surround those hateful, loaded, or misinformed opinions with competing opinions from the opposite end of the spectrum.

      Much of the problem is the prolific use of bots to amplify and mainstream otherwise outlandish and hateful views. Adding more and more bots shouting ever louder at each other would just be a pointless arms race.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    The problem with bots and idiots is that they keep coming back.So just block creating all new accounts on Twitter and Facebook platforms for a couple of years. Anyone who wants an account probably already has one by now. After a while only moderate voices and closed echo chambers would be left. If knowing you might lose your account and never get another one might make you think twice before posting. New users could be allowed eventually if it was felt necessary.

    Or only open new accounts to people who can find an existing user who will vouch for them (like how G+ started). If the new user gets banned (temp or permanent), so does their sponser and everyone they have recommended recursively - so sponsers must think hard before agreeing. Sponsers can only vouch for ten person per year, new users must wait a year before recommending anyone.

    The recursive removal of whole trees of recommendations should slow down the proliferation of bots that recommend each other.

    1. iron Silver badge

      None of your ideas stop the problem - Trump inciting violence and racial hatred, attempting to game a presidential election via Twitter and claiming it is illegal to hide, block or ban him.

      Also the users would just go elsewhere where they can actually open an account, see the vast swathes of people who didn't join Google+.

    2. Smooth Newt Silver badge
      Happy

      Bots and idiots

      I'd supress bots for a start. Its not so hard to do by a series of measures, such as randomly requiring a Turing test for about one in twenty posts so that large scale bot farming requires significant human effort, and blocking accounts where the majority of posts don't come from at least the country that the user claims to reside in (and don't let them use VPNs).

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Bots and idiots

        >such as randomly requiring a Turing test

        For Americans?

        What are the questions going to be:

        What's the point of NASCAR.

        Why is everything that isn't chicken called chicken-fried?

        What is the principle ingredient of beer (answer HFCS=human but American)

      2. Charles 9 Silver badge

        Re: Bots and idiots

        They'll just figure out how to beat the Turing tests. Research into machine learning and AI will only improve. Plus there's always Indian click shops...

        It's tricky to block VPNs without being seen as supporting oppressive regimes.

  6. Whitter
    Paris Hilton

    Be careful what you wish for Mr Trump

    That is all

  7. fishman

    The end result will be that the changes will cost money, and the big players can afford it. The smaller players and new players will be squeezed, and the big players will become even more dominant.

  8. DS999

    Allowing the DoJ to determine who is a "bad samaratin"

    Is a terrible idea, given that Trump has exposed how easily it can be manipulated if you stick a spineless pawn at its head like Barr. Until the DoJ is fixed so the president (of whichever party) has a lot less power over its operations, no way I'd trust them with this power.

    If Trump had that power now he'd already have had Barr order the shutdown of the websites of CNN, the Washington Post and the New York Times, and anyone else who reported anything not over the top flattering to him like the suckups at Fox News. Press inside the US would quickly resemble that of Russia or worse.

    1. Charles 9 Silver badge

      Re: Allowing the DoJ to determine who is a "bad samaratin"

      Then you can't trust anyone because someone with sufficient power will just take over with sheer force.

  9. Catnip Sushi

    Objectivity for optimal monitization

    I would suggest "and are held accountable to standards of objectivity" be replaced by "and are held accountable to standards of the publication". The so-called objectivity is a development of post-WWII newspapers after most cities became one paper towns. After all, we wouldn't want to tick off half of our subscribers, eh?

    In the end, at the top of the page it says "Facebook" or "Twitter" or "Next Door" or whatever. Everything written there is under that imprimatur. That's publishing and publishers need to take responsibility for the content of their publication. If it turns out that a publisher needs to hire ten thousand editors, then it needs to hire those editors or pull back its scope to what it can control (At least that will increase the market for language students). Just being big and undermanned is no excuse. Nobody sues the writer at the Washington Post, they sue the Post; Facebook should be held to the same standard.

    1. Graham Cobb

      Re: Objectivity for optimal monitization

      Nobody sues AT&T when someone makes threats over the phone. Facebook should be held to the same standard.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Objectivity for optimal monitization

        AT&T usually has the means to trace the call to enough of an extent that law enforcement can take over. Given all the tricks the Internet has to offer (including full-out identity theft), it would be difficult to hold Facebook to the same standard. Plus, what if they just start putting their legal team to use?

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