“No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” — Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act.
Don Nelson is owner and publisher of the Methow Valley News. This means he’s legally responsible for what’s printed in this newspaper.
No mystery here. Everyone knows what a publisher is. Everyone, that is, except the U. S. Congress, Supreme Court and social media publishing companies such as Google and Meta. They pretend to be deeply confused.
But it’s not rocket science. Publishers make information public.
Nor is there any mystery about what happens if Don publishes something false and harmful about you. We in the dead tree journalism business aren’t legally free to libel you.
So you can ask Don to publish a correction or sue him for libel. He’s legally accountable for everything he publishes. (But if you’ve sullied your own reputation, don’t come crying to us. It’s not libel if we publish the truth about your behavior.)
Incredibly, this obligation to avoid publishing falsehoods does not burden owners of social media publishing “platforms” — cyber-speak for printing presses. They are, in effect, beyond the reach of law. There are no Don Nelsons in cyberspace.
Social media publishers refuse responsibility for content people post on their platforms, arguing that they did not write or edit it. But if Don publishes a letter to the editor that libels someone, he can be sued.
When we make mistakes, we publish corrections. When was the last time you saw a correction on a social media platform?
We publish corrections because we understand that all we have to sell you is our credibility. Why pay us for incorrect, unreliable information when you can get that for free all over the internet?
This month the U.S. Supreme Court had a chance to remedy the injustice and harm to society condoned by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. But they upheld this wrongheaded law.
Backstory: Congress in 1996 decided it was a wonderful idea to allow owners of social media publishing platforms to publish whatever anyone might post without regard to fact or legal constraints. Internet publishers can freely publish in cyberspace what we rightly are prohibited from publishing on newsprint.
Had Congress required social media publishers to answer to the same laws we do, we’d be living in a far more civilized society. Cyberspace printing presses could not freely disseminate the volume of unaccountable lies, libel and hatred they spew out.
Congress and the court seem to have concluded that to enjoy the blessings of the internet we must tolerate deconstruction of civil society and rule of law.
I think not.
Congress has turned a blind eye to violations in cyberspace of legal limits on free speech. Instead, it hides behind a posture of internet illiteracy.
Lawmakers agreed with the absurd assertions by social media publishers that because they don’t write or edit anything on their sites, they aren’t publishers and cannot be held legally responsible for anything others post on their platforms.
Butter would not melt in these mouths. Claiming to be providing high-minded, unfiltered platforms for “free” speech, social media publishers have monetized and disseminated hate speech.
Free speech is not free of legal restraints. You cannot falsely yell “fire” in a crowded theatre, for example, because that poses a threat to public safety. Nor can you indulge in slander or libel against other people without legal consequences.
In a second case involving Twitter, Google and Facebook, the court this month unanimously agreed that such platforms cannot be held responsible for terrorist attacks even though their platforms were used to promote terrorism.
YouTube (owned by Google) deployed information it collected about viewers to market ISIS videos that were judged — by perfectly innocent, unaccountable algorithms! — to be of interest to certain users. Justice Clarence Thomas agreed that the algorithms were “agnostic” (without preference) when they guided users to ISIS videos. Algorithms, it seems, also are beyond reach of law.
“The fact that these algorithms matched some ISIS content with some users thus does not convert defendants’ passive assistance into active abetting” of terrorism, he wrote.
To rule otherwise, Thomas explained, would expose the companies to potential liability for “each and every ISIS terrorist act committed anywhere in the world.” His observation only underscores the global reach of the danger posed by unregulated social media publishers.
Social media platforms are unimaginably successful. Every minute of each day, Thomas noted, 500 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube, 510,000 comments are posted on Facebook, and 347,000 tweets are sent via Twitter.
Speech free of any legal constraint understandably is a wildly popular indulgence.
Unfortunately, this success appears unmanageable. These publishers cannot, or will not, control content on their platforms. Either way, it would reduce their enormous profits. Instead, the intolerable social costs of amassing their wealth are to be borne by the rest of us.
During oral arguments, Justice Elena Kagan mused that “every other industry has to internalize the cost of its conduct. Why is it that the tech industry gets a pass? A little bit unclear. On the other hand, I mean, we’re a court. We really don’t know about these things.”
If the Supreme Court and Congress are not competent to judge what publishers’ legal responsibilities are, who is?
Solveig Torvik lives near Winthrop.