US president Joe Biden recently wrote an opinion piece (opens in new tab) in the Wall Street Journal calling for Democrats and Republicans to unite over fears that big tech companies are not responsible for the content posted on social media platforms.
“Millions of young people are struggling with bullying, violence, trauma, and mental health. We must hold social media companies accountable for the experiment they are running on our children for profit,” Biden says.
The fact that social media companies in the US are practically untouchable when it comes to the content being posted is thanks to the wording of Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act.
What is Section 230, you ask? It includes a passage often known as the most important 26 words in tech:
“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.”
It came about in the web’s early days as a result of a catch-22 situation the web found itself in at the time. There have been calls for a reform for a few years now, with the 2020 review document (opens in new tab) (PDF warning) from the US Department of Justice noting that, before Section 230 came about, platforms were previously “not liable as a publisher if any of that content was defamatory” unless it actually tried to remove it through moderation. So most just kind of didn’t bother.
Section 230 was passed to give companies more protections, and the freedom to moderate, in the hopes that it would prevent the stifling of emerging internet companies. Unfortunately it ended up being a part of the problem.
A reform for the US could mean huge changes, with the hope being that there will be more protection for victims of illicit activity as opposed to companies, though Gizmodo (opens in new tab) makes a fair observation. Under such strict policing, “would the internet even work?”
In the EU, something called the Digital Services Act (opens in new tab) is currently in play, and yes, the internet does still work. The act threatens tech companies like Facebook, YouTube and the like with billions of dollars worth of fines, and compels companies to improve policies regarding illicit content.
Bringing his concerns around to meet with growing fears over the use of personal data, Biden goes on to describe how “big tech companies often use users’ personal data to direct them toward extreme and polarising content that is likely to keep them logged on and clicking.”
Time will tell whether the reform goes through. The reality is that whatever that reform looks like, it will likely end up being something another group hopes to repeal in a decade’s time. Legislating for the internet is a truly gargantuan task.