Hi, everyone. Is it safe to come out? No. But I notice that there are a lot more people in the streets these days. Keep those masks on!
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The Plain View
Lately, my pandemic reading has included Munich, a historical novel by Robert Harris involving the tragic 1938 attempt by UK prime minister Neville Chamberlain to appease Adolph Hitler, hoping to stave off a world war that the Führer was hellbound to trigger. Chamberlain’s efforts (which Harris portrays sympathetically) were doomed.
That reading now has an odd resonance with current events. For years, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey have donned kid gloves to handle complaints of conservative bias from Donald Trump, other Republicans, and far-right wingnuts. Despite this appeasement, the executives are now facing a Trump executive order that will potentially impose government controls on what users can and cannot say on their platforms.
Specifically, Trump is attempting to unilaterally reinterpret the meaning of Section 230, the part of the 1996 Telecommunications Bill that gives the platforms the ability to police the user-created content on their sites for safety and security without bearing the legal responsibility for anything those billions of people might say. His order explicitly echoes his claim—a bogus one—that the platforms are using the 1996 provision to censor conservatives. According to the order, Trump gives the government the power to strip companies of their protection under Section 230. Trump also wants to use something called the “Tech Bias Reporting Tool” to examine platforms for political bias and report offenders to the DOJ and FTC for possible action. It’s a bold move that would create government monitors to make sure Facebook, Twitter, and the rest give conservative speech more than its due. (One hopes that if this does come to pass, the courts will overturn the effort because, well, the constitution.)
The longstanding claim that the platforms censor conservative speech is ridiculous. Facebook and Twitter remove content that violates community standards by spreading harmful misinformation or hate speech. A lot of that comes from elements of the right wing. Yeah, those standards aren’t perfect, and those platforms make mistakes in executing them, but there’s never been any evidence of an algorithmic bias. But instead of vigorously defending themselves, the leaders of the platforms keep assuring politicians that they take those gripes very seriously.
Trump himself gets a pass when it comes to moderation because what a president says is newsworthy. That’s a defendable stance, but as he increasingly violates standards and norms, his posts have become a firehose of toxicity. In 2017, Dorsey told me, “I think it’s really important that we maintain open channels to our leaders, whether we like what they’re saying or not, because I don’t know of another way to hold them accountable.” He also implied that newsworthiness might have to be balanced with community standards. That was many tweets ago, and it wasn’t until this week that Twitter provided a fact-check to a Trump tweet that told falsehoods about voting by mail. (Still, Twitter left standing a Trump tweet spreading a bogus charge that former congressperson Joe Scarborough once killed an aide.)
Zuckerberg has given Trump and other conservatives an even wider berth, beginning with his 2015 decision to leave up Trump’s anti-Muslim post that seemingly violated the company’s hate speech policy. During the 2016 election, Facebook did not remove false news stories from make-believe publications, even though it was clear that such information overwhelmingly benefited Trump. Despite this, the right kept complaining of bias, with Republicans blasting Zuckerberg in his April 2018 appearance in Congress. Zuckerberg knew full well that there was no statistical basis for the charge. But when I asked him about that soon after, his response was shockingly timid. “That depth of concern that there might be some political bias really struck me,” he said. “I was like, ‘Wow, we need to make sure we bring in independent, outside folks to help us do an audit and give us advice on making sure our systems are not biased in ways that we don’t understand.’”
Later, Facebook commissioned a study led by conservative senator John Kyl which offered no data to back up any systematic bias. Instead of demanding that this should end the complaints, Facebook made some general adjustments in its policies that gave the anecdotal gripes in the report more credibility than they warranted. Appeasement!
Look, I get it—who wants to take on the president and the ruling party, especially when regulation is in the air? But instead of avoiding conflict, Facebook and Twitter leaders should have been emphasizing that they have just as much right to set their own standards as television stations, newspapers, and other corporations. Despite the fact that they are popular enough to be considered a “public square,” they are still private businesses, and the government has no business determining what legal speech can and cannot occur there. That is the essence of the First Amendment. But even as Mark Zuckerberg goes on about how he values free expression—as he was doing on television the same day Trump issued his order—he still refrains from demanding that the government respect Facebook’s own right to free speech.
To be sure, Trump is wading—no, make that belly-flopping—into a controversy over internet speech that is already fraught with intractable problems. The very act of giving bullhorns to billions is both a boon and a menace. Even with the purest intentions—and obviously those growth-oriented platforms are not pure—figuring out how to deal with it involves multiple shades of gray. But the current threat comes in clear black and white: the president of the United States is attempting a takeover of internet speech and asserting a federal privilege to topple truth itself.
Munich has failed. It’s time for the internet moguls to stop acting like Chamberlain—and start channeling Churchill.
Section 230 was part of the Communications Decency Act, a provision of the 1996 Telecommunications Act. The law included harsh penalties for “indecent” speech that minors might see. The force behind it was the conservative Democratic senator James Exon of Nebraska. While the “indecency” provisions limiting speech were thrown out by judges as unconstitutional restraints, Section 230 lived on. In April 1995, I wrote in Newsweek about the bill in progress. Who knew that 25 years later, we would still be arguing about it?
Exon’s bill—actually an amendment tacked to the telecommunications bill—has already undergone considerable changes. The initial version spread the liability for “obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy or indecent” speech between the originator and the online service that moved the message. Critics noted that it was impossible for the service providers to read the gigabits of data that pass through their portals; in effect, the bill would criminalize the entire Internet. So Exon exempted them from prosecution. Responsibility for keeping the Net clean now rests on those who post messages, send letters, maintain web sites and distribute documents and files. The penalty for filth is a fine and possibly a jail term…. Yes, it is true—some of us who have participated in the explosive growth of the Net might have been turned off by some of the scatologies and tasteless excesses. But anyone who has spent time using this new form of communication also understands that this is a minor annoyance compared with its positive aspects. The most exciting of these is the Net’s unrestrained freedom of expression. After the sound-bite smog of broadcast media, this passionate embrace of ideas and creativity is clean, fresh air. This could have been, and still can be, our legacy to the global communications infrastructure-exporting the glories of the First Amendment, granting citizens of all nations the experience of speaking without fear. Instead, in their misguided attempt to protect children, Jim Exon and company would export a vision of America based on fear, prudery, ignorance and oppression. I find it indecent.
Ask Me One Thing
I got a lot of questions related to last week’s Plain View on working from home, including this one from Sandeep: “Do you see a future of cities as a place of work? If so what would it look like?”
Thanks for the question, Sandeep, which I’m answering from my apartment in the East Village. As much as cities are taking a beating during this period, I remain optimistic that they will survive. Even if it takes a few years, there will be a time when people interact without fear, and all the things that once drew ambitious and creative people to cities will be compelling once more. Do you think that recent college grads will be excited by working at home miles away from coworkers? While I do think that employers will forever be more flexible about those who really want to work from home, my bet is that year after year those offices will get closer to capacity. I do draw the line, though, at saying WeWork can make a comeback. I’m still baffled that it got that far to begin with.