Section 230 isn’t up to the task
Today in my weekly Slate Money podcast I’m discussing the recent lawsuit, brought by the families of the Orlando Pulse shooting victims, against Facebook, Google, and Twitter. They claim the social media platforms aided and abetted the radicalization of the Orlando shooter.
They probably won’t win, because Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 protects internet sites from content that’s posted by third parties – in this case, ISIS or its supporters.
The ACLU and the EFF are both big supporters of Section 230, on the grounds that it contributes to a sense of free speech online. I say sense because it really doesn’t guarantee free speech at all, and people are kicked off social media all the time, for random reasons as well as for well-thought out policies.
Here’s my problem with Section 230, and in particular this line:
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 treats “platforms” as innocent bystanders in the actions and words of its users. As if Facebook’s money-making machine, and the design of that machine, have nothing to do with the proliferation of fake news. Or as if Google does not benefit directly from the false and misleading information of advertisers on its site, which Section 230 immunizes it from.
The thing is, in this world of fake news, online abuse, and propaganda, I think we need to hold these platforms at least partly responsible. To ignore their contributions would be foolish from the perspective of the public.
I’m not saying I have a magic legal tool to do this, because I don’t, and I’m no legal scholar. It’s also difficult to precisely quantify the externalities of the kinds of problems stemming from a complete indifference and immunization from consequences that the platforms currently enjoy. But I think we need to do something, and I think Section 230 isn’t that thing.