The late spokesman Tipp O’Neill once remarked that “all politics are local”. I’m not going to argue with it, especially when so many people are yelling, “It’s all about me.”
But I’m not particularly keen on it when the press does. And so the heading in this Washington Post article makes me angry about Section 230 immunity:
Section 230 refers to a small part of the Communications Decency Act that gives information providers immunity from things that other people may comment on. The nuts and bolts of it are these 26 words:
No provider or user of an interactive computer service may be treated as the publisher or speaker of information provided by any other information content provider.
These 26 words are interpreted very broadly. For example, if I blog a piece about Joe Shlabotnick inventing a new baseball and the reader comments turn into a virtual screaming match about Nazis accusing each other of crimes, then I’m not responsible for what you write. I cannot be sued for libel against them. Or at least not successfully sued.
I can even record a comment, add headings and illustrations, and make it a guest post and still be immune to libel as an editor. So says New York’s highest court in 2011 in Shiamili against The Real Estate Group of New York when a blog did just that.
What should a blogger do without this protection if there are complaints that comments are defamatory? To carry out an investigation? Make discovery? Make deposits? And should I only write a comment because someone else says it is defamatory? How do I know who is telling the truth? Or what if the truth is a mixture of both positions?
This is the stuff legal proceedings are made of after a few years of litigation. Without the protection, the comments will be castrated.
All politics are local. The law concerns me. And it affects you if you want to leave comments or just read them.
Now, take my concern about comments on this humble little blog and enlarge them by a ton. Because that is what Facebook, Google, Twitter, etc. have to worry about. The demand for perfect moderation of comments is to demand the impossible.
Section 230 is a big part of the engine that makes the web really interactive. In addition to reading and writing product reviews on Amazon, this is a great place to stop by a small restaurant or hotel in Ottumwa, Iowa while checking out your old friend Radar. Then, leave comments for future visitors on Yelp or Trip Advisor, and those sites won’t have to verify your comment about the rude behavior of the waiter or front desk clerk. Because such moderation would be impossible.
Now Trump is threatening to veto a defense bill for not liking section 230. I’m not going to pretend he actually understands the meaning, but you should. And “technology giants” are only part of it.
Perhaps all he knows is that Twitter calls them controversial when he ceaselessly tells fictional conspiracy stories about election fraud. Trump is known to be a Twitter addict. He lives off being able to spit on it. And he’s obviously not happy with Twitter itself fact-checking him, so maybe he just wants to be back on Twitter.
Of course, Twitter is only responsible for what it writes, not what others write. Thanks to 230.
(Full Disclosure: I own shares in Twitter after buying them after Trump was sworn in and thought four years of free advertising couldn’t hurt.)
You can think that it doesn’t matter if Trump leaves office (even if the Secret Service has to get him out for trespassing). This is because Joe Biden also believes that section 230 should be revoked.
The media might want to focus on how this is affecting the tech giants – hey, they have money, why don’t they just do a better job of moderating content? – but it concerns me. And you.
It is true that the comments on many websites are little more than a puddle of spit that is not worth noticing except, perhaps, to be noticed for the purpose of avoidance. On some websites, people can potentially do and say terrible things.
But it’s easy to identify problems. The hard part is finding solutions. There is no magic bullet for comment moderation. There is no artificial intelligence program that can find out whether the waiter or clerk in Ottumwa was really rude to you, and whether your comment on the incident was fair and correct. Artificial intelligence has no way of knowing if the product you ordered and reviewed online was really Crappola.
If section 230 is destroyed, many websites will simply no longer allow comments. Or, with every complaint, simply take on the comments of others and give the complainant a veto against the commentator, regardless of the accuracy.
The question of Section 230 is not an esoteric legal matter. It’s fundamental to the way we interact with others now and how the internet works.
I’ve never written about it because I never tried to get rid of immunity. But when both an outgoing and incoming POTUS give it a voice and the press pretends they’re just “tech giants,” it’s time to make sure you know what it’s about. It’s both about the comments you read and the comments you make.
If you are interested in more:
Hello! You were referred here because you were wrong about Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (Masnick at Tehdirt).
Everything you need to know about Section 230 (The Verge)