Tech

Non-FAAMG tech corps launch Section 230 compromise coalition as change seems inevitable

The second tier of tech giants have formed a new coalition focused on making sure changes coming to platform liability don’t squash them.

The Internet Works coalition comprises, among others, Cloudflare, Dropbox, eBay, Etsy, GoDaddy, Nextdoor, Patreon, Pinterest, Reddit, Tripadvisor, Vimeo, and the Wikimedia Foundation, and will “work with Congress to promote the benefits of Section 230, a provision of the Communications Decency Act.”

In truth, though, the decision to stand together says two things: first, that they have accepted changes to Section 230 are inevitable after years of insisting that the clause is sacrosanct, and can’t be touched for fear blowing up the entire internet economy. Second, they are worried the top-tier tech giants – Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, and Google, aka FAAMG – will out lobby them and get changes that work for them but weigh heavily on smaller companies.

The acceptance that changes to Section 230 are coming is a big shift but one that can’t be put off any longer. There are now several proposed laws for changing the 26 words that form the clause that provide broad legal protections for online platforms operators.

President-elect Joe Biden has already made it plain he wants to scrap the entire clause altogether, and President Trump has turned the relatively obscure piece of law into a bizarre rallying cry built around what he claims is censorship of his tweets.

Unfortunately, as with net neutrality, the issue has now entered the netherworld of partisan politics where reality rarely impinges, with those of the right seemingly convinced that the tech companies are using the clause to censor conservative voices, and those on the left claiming that online platforms are using it to not do enough to fight misinformation and harmful content.

Internet Works is going to try to reimpose reality. “The goal of Internet Works is to ensure policymakers understand the potential unintended consequences of blunt changes to the law, including reducing competition, imperiling consumer choice, and limiting effective content moderation efforts,” it says. Good luck with that.

New voices

On the second point – making sure its members aren’t steamrolled by senators and Big Tech lobbyists – Internet Works says it will “bring new voices and diverse perspectives to Washington’s current Section 230 debate, which too often focuses on the largest internet platforms.”

It wants to: “Ensure that any Section 230 reform effort receives a thorough, bipartisan, and thoughtful review that such a foundational law deserves.”

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It’s impossible to know right now where Section 230 will end up. As mentioned, President Trump threw the entire discussion into turmoil, particularly when he forced the Commerce Department to send a request to the “independent” regulator, the FCC, to review it.

Much to policy experts’ chagrin, current FCC chair Ajit Pai agreed to that request rather than reject it. And then the man who developed and pushed it, Nathan Simington, was voted onto the FCC despite having limited experience or knowledge of FCC matters. Observers are now worried that the FCC will try to force through changes before the end of the Trump Administration, at which point control of the FCC will move to Joe Biden’s team.

President Trump has – wrongly – equated Section 230 with Twitter putting warning notices on his most inaccurate social media postings, and that has created a huge body of internet users who are vehemently opposed to something they haven’t the vaguest notion about, making broader public comment and debate on the issue all but impossible.

Trump even threatened to veto a must-pass military bill if it didn’t include a removal of Section 230. Fortunately for everyone, Congress ignored the lame-duck president’s threat and passed it with a veto-proof majority.

Changes

Meanwhile, the Department of Justice has pushed what changes it thinks need to be made to the clause, and multiple pieces of proposed legislation have also put forward changes.

In amongst all that, the two men that actually wrote and passed the clause in the first place have been warning anyone that will listen that people have fundamentally misunderstood its role and what it achieves and does not achieve in law.

In short, it’s a loud mess and the risk is that nuance will become impossible. That may mean that the clause is either scrapped altogether or the law is changed in a blunt way and insists certain types of content will not be covered by the liability protection – meaning that companies could be sued if any piece of content makes it through.

The systems to do that kind of effective blocking and fast takedown are likely to be extremely expensive, lending a huge advantage to companies like Facebook that could afford to put in massive resources, while putting a huge burden on smaller companies like those represented by Internet Works.

In Europe and the UK, the government is looking at a more flexible system where regulation will focus on the systems behind the platforms, rather than focus on specific pieces of content. They are also stepping back from passing precise laws and are instead giving regulators the powers to decide when and how to intercede, with the ability to levy large fines on companies that fail to meet expectations. ®


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