Issue 82

Censoring social media

Delivered on 15 June 2020 by Justin Pyvis. About a 4 min read.

No one in the United States appears to be happy with social media lately, other than the millions of people voluntarily using them every day. Both sides of politics are gearing up to pass or remove laws which will effectively require speech to be censored on social media platforms, albeit in slightly different ways. That differs from the current situation where speech may be censored, but doesn't have to be. It's why Mark Zuckerberg can be "deeply shaken and disgusted by President Trump’s divisive and incendiary rhetoric", but still allow the post to remain, while Twitter opted to put it behind a content warning. It's called competition and people will vote with their eyeballs as to which content moderation model they prefer.

However, when you're a legislator everything must be solved with... legislation. We wrote the other week about Trump's dislike for Section 230 - despite the fact it's the only thing that has prevented him from being banned entirely - and now it seems his administration is concocting some legislation to act on that:

The legislation would open platforms to legal liability if they enforce their terms of services in unequal or uneven ways, including by making politically motivated moderation decisions.

That would be a reversal from the broad immunity from lawsuits over both user-posted content and making moderation calls like taking down posts and banning user accounts that platforms have under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996.

Our old mate, US Attorney General William Barr, had this to say:

These entities are now engaged in censorship. We are looking, as many others are, at changing Section 230.

Yes, it's censorship. Platforms are allowed to censor the content on their platforms. If you don't like it, feel free to start your own. Many have tried, many have failed, because people are quite happy with the 'almost free speech' models of Facebook and Twitter. There is no issue here that needs to be regulated.

Alas, it seems that the Democrats are also unhappy with social media. Not to be outdone by Trump, the Biden campaign is gearing up for its own assault:

"I’ve never been a big Zuckerberg fan," Mr. Biden said. "I think he’s a real problem."

Mr. Biden also called for the end of the legal shield Mr. Trump targeted recently in his executive order. The vice president said Facebook’s inaction demonstrated the need to revoke the law, known as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which shields them from most liability for the content they host.

A reminder that Section 230 is what protects media platforms from being held liable for their users' content. In other words, Facebook cannot be sued for Trump or Biden's content, regardless of how misleading of malicious it may be. Once again, this isn't a free speech issue: no one is forcing them to use these platforms, nor do the platforms have to provide them with a voice.

Removing Section 230 would require platforms to engage in an enormous amount of content editing (censorship), the same way a newspaper has to control what appears on its pages. But newspapers don't have to deal with the volume of content that social media platforms encounter. Removing Section 230 would effectively destroy the existing social media business model overnight.

However, there is some good news. Big Tech donates a lot to political campaigns, and any change to Section 230 would require Congress' support:

With legal action imminent — and President Trump recently taking fresh, aggressive aim at Silicon Valley — the industry’s largest companies have shelled out sizable sums to lobby in Washington. Amazon, Facebook and Google have spent more than $11 million combined over the first three months of 2020 to influence federal action on a range of issues, including antitrust, according to ethics disclosures filed with Congress. The amount is slightly higher than the same period in 2019.

But those figures do not reflect the hard-to-track sums spent by the industry to shape public opinion beyond the Beltway. Many in the tech industry privately say they’ve adopted such tactics because they face an onslaught of criticism from a wide array of new opposition groups, such as the Campaign for Accountability, a nonprofit that has produced research critical of tech companies including Amazon and Google.

Section 230 won't disappear because it'll never get through Congress. But the threat alone may be enough to force Big Tech into a "compromise", e.g. establishing an "independent" censorship body of some kind to set rules about content. I have no problem with that if it's voluntary, but as soon as it becomes law it would serve as a costly barrier to new entrants, granting Zuckerberg the oligarch status he so desires.

Enjoy the rest of this week's issue. Cheers,

— Justin

Other bits of interest

GAIA-X will fail hard

File it under government trying to compete in tech and failing #4286.

France and Germany have kicked off the GAIA-X cloud project, their lofty bid to manage dominant US and Chinese cloud giants in a European way, and address potential conflicts between EU privacy laws and the US Cloud Act.

That Zoom culture strikes again

There's complying with local laws, then there's complying with requests from China's government to shut down overseas-based accounts. Zoom has shown it's an ambitious company that will readily trade integrity/privacy/security for growth.

Chinese officials reached out to Zoom in May and early June about four videoconference calls that were publicized on social media to commemorate Tiananmen Square protests, the San Jose, California-based company said Thursday in a blog post. Zoom said that China “demanded” the company terminate the meetings and host accounts because of the activity, which it deemed illegal.  

Zoom said that at least three of the four meetings contained participants from mainland China, and it made the decision to end three of the meetings and terminate the associated accounts, two in the U.S. and one belonging to an activist in Hong Kong. “Going forward Zoom will not allow requests from the Chinese government to impact anyone outside of mainland China,” the company said.

Issue 82: Censoring social media was compiled by Justin Pyvis and delivered on 15 June 2020.