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Thoughts on Twitter and Section 230

Kudos to the company for its principled stance.
May | 29 | 2020


May | 29 | 2020

Section 230 of the Communication Decency Act is getting plenty of attention these days. My friend Josh Bernoff reached out to me for an op-ed that he’s penning for The Boston Globe.

I misunderstood that he just wanted a short quote. Instead, I started thinking and writing more detailed answers. (I’ll cop to it: I went a tad overboard. Note to self: If unclear, ask before responding next time.)

Here are my answers to his questions. I like to think that they don’t suck.

You wrote The Age of the Platform. Twitter and Facebook are platforms. What obligation do they have to allow or prohibit certain types of content on the platform?

Twitter and Facebook have had plenty of company in lobbying for to keep Section 230 as is over the years. At different points, Apple, Google, eBay, and others have either directly lobbied to keep it—or supported industry groups that did the same. These companies spend a boatload of money trying to influence policy. They have all benefited to different degrees from Section 230’s protections.

These companies’ financial incentives have historically dictated the response to their question: the benefits of keeping questionable or even inflammatory and false content on their platforms have outweighed their drawbacks. Eyeballs. Engagement. Call it whatever you like.

We don’t let people sell illegal drugs on Amazon. I can’t sell my spare kidney on eBay.

If Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and others let run amok, then heaven help us all.

Does the Trump administration have a case that Twitter did not operate in good faith by labelling his tweets as in need of fact checking?

Twitter did the right thing. Period.

Last time I checked, there’s no constitutional right to tweet. Moreover, the First Amendment isn’t absolute. We don’t let people yell “Fire” in a crowded theater.

Consider two people:

  • A mommy blogger who makes an honest mistake in her tweets from time to time
  • A public official who repeatedly distorts the truth and spreads demonstrable lies

Should platforms apply different standards to different people based upon their influence?

Yes. If you don’t like that, then get off of Twitter. No one compels you to use it.

Twitter and Facebook find themselves in no-win situations. They can’t possibly be arbiters of truth in any one language, never mind hundreds of them.

How do you expect Twitter to respond?

I’d be shocked if Twitter’s senior leadership and lawyers weren’t calculating the company’s response right now. It would help if such an influential organization had a full-time CEO running the show.

Ultimately, this will wind up in court.

If I had to bet, Twitter will take a principled stance. It has already shown a willingness to forgo cash for morals.

Ultimately, this will wind up in court.

If you could propose legislation to improve social media and the disinformation spreading on it, what would you suggest?

We don’t allow CEOs and CFOs of publicly traded companies to sign financial statements willy-nilly because their actions can harm others: employees, investors, partners, and the like. If they do, then thanks to the Sarbanes–Oxley Act, they can wind up in orange jumpsuits. We ought to hold platforms to the same standard.

Apple banned Alex Jones for spreading misinformation and conspiracy theories. It the right move. Twitter can do the same with public officials who demonstrate no regard for the truth.

I’d love to see legislation requiring platforms to implement some type of penalty box. Willfully spreading lies isn’t in our national interest and creates long-term problems.

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