In just a few short weeks, the coronavirus pandemic has exposed massive shortcoming in our nation’s health, communications, and policy infrastructure. And unsurprisingly, some of the worst disinformation, fraud, and exploitation of the crisis has happened on the internet – from racist memes to hacks to bogus cure-all scams.
While the biggest search and social media platforms have been claiming for years any new limits on their operations would “break the internet,” in the real world they seem to be the ones doing most of the damage – from broken elections to online hate speech and extremism to the steadily shrinking ranks of journalists and other artists and creators.
Unsurprisingly, that has all spawned an avalanche of investigations and oversight, including most recently inquiries by Congress about the spread of coronavirus misinformation and now a major legislative effort to revisit the legal immunities and protections that have allowed the big platforms to grow so wildly successful despite the toxic atmosphere they sometimes enable.
Much of the problem lies in the sweeping “safe harbors” Congress created in the internet’s early days.
Section 512 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act share the same core idea: Tech platforms can’t be held accountable for their role in facilitating online crime, antisocial conduct and abuse across their networks – with depressingly predictable results.
If Google and Facebook aren’t accountable for crimes, abuses, or harassment that their technology makes possible, there’s little incentive for them to do anything about it. And voila, welcome to Internet 2020, brought to you by Jim Bakker, Mark Zuckerberg and President Trump.
In recent years, Congress has taken baby steps toward reining in the increasingly notorious Section 230 safe harbor, which shields platforms for liability from their role in facilitating a huge range of antisocial abuses online. And a host of new bills are apparently on the way dealing with for false election ads, child exploitation, censorship and discrimination and more.
But each of these steps faces the same sky-is-falling “Chicken Little” argument – a superheated claim that virtually any change to the safe harbor liability shields will “break the internet.” Do nothing, the platforms warn Congress, or you’ll ruin everything.
In real-world tests, those claims have proven empty. At a recent Justice Department workshop on platform ground rules in Washington, D.C., a top expert from the National Council on Missing and Exploited Children praised recent legal reforms for deterring new sex trafficking websites from taking the place of the happily shuttered Backpage.com.
The same is true of efforts around the world to shut down streamripping mills and other online piracy sites. As reported by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, stronger tools used overseas – like “no fault” injunctions that allow credit card companies, hosting services, and other “intermediaries” to cut off commercial piracy sites without any liability themselves – have been effective. And the internet still works just fine .
Ultimately, both the 230 and 512 safe harbors share the same original sin. Instead of encouraging platforms to police themselves and put their own muscle to work building a safer, more responsible internet, they encouraged and enabled indifference, and sometimes outright recklessness.
During the DOJ CDA 230 workshop, free speech scholar Mary Ann Franks explained how Facebook was “surprised” its new “Live” video service was almost immediately used to broadcast unspeakable crimes. And the same problem is playing out now as the platforms once again find themselves struggling to catch up to the gusher of misinformation, confusion, and scams fueling widespread virus panic.
Instead of fighting round after round of the spin wars, a losing proposition in a world that is increasingly skeptical about their unaccountable power, the platforms should instead do what they do best – innovate. Be honest and rigorous about the problems of the modern internet experience and get to work engineering effective new solutions that, coincidentally, might create a lot of new, good-paying jobs.
These are the biggest, smartest, most capable companies in the world and the vast majority of the people working for them want a safer, more secure internet as much as the rest of us, especially as we turn to online platforms for information, connectivity and community now more than ever.
And they can probably build it too, if their bosses in Mountain View and Menlo Park will let them.
Mike Montgomery is the executive director of CALinnovates.
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