I’m excited to announce that I have been selected to give a Tedx talk about Section 230 and content moderation on February 28th at Santa Clara University (time/location tbd). Below is the abstract I submitted to be considered and, now, a teaser for the 18 minute talk. I also submitted my blog post about Internet Emotionalism.
For a generation raised on the Internet, it’s surprising how little we understand it. Between fake news, Russian election hacking, spambots, and “sponsored content,” not surprisingly, the spread of misinformation is rampant on the Internet. But out of all the fake news out there, what keeps me up at night is the disturbing spread of misinformation regarding content moderation and Section 230. In an age of Internet emotionalism where we have become so fed up with “big tech” controlling our everyday lives, misusing our data, and keeping us in the dark, we’re now inclined to turn to our government and demand regulation; the break up of “big tech.” When we begged for regulation, we got the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA), and with FOSTA, we lost Tumblr. Craigslist lost their personals, Facebook users lost protected speech, and, most importantly, sex workers lost their lives. Last month, Patriot Act comedian Hasan Minhaj claimed Section 230 was no longer working and alluded to this familiar plea for more online regulation to enhance content moderation. Tech companies want to be a “Platform in the streets and publisher in the sheets,” said Minhaj. In my talk, I offer an opposing an admittedly infamous view: Quality content moderation requires less online regulation.
In order for platforms to effectively moderate their online ecosystem they must be free to do so without the fear and threat of criminal or civil sanctions. In 1996, Congress passed what some call, the law of the Internet: Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Under Section 230, websites are 1. not liable for third party content and 2. not liable for their good faith removal of such content. The concept was so simple yet so crucial for the promotion of a free and open Internet. The court in ACLU v. Reno held “The Internet is therefore a unique and wholly new medium of worldwide human communication,” and therefore it should be regulated as such. Thus, 47 U.S.C 230 spawned from the age of Internet Exceptionalism at a time where it was mutually understood that whatever the Internet was or was destined to be, it shall be protected from the interfering hand of the government. This idea in 1996 is just as important in 2018, or at least it should be. Without this freedom to moderate content as platforms see fit, the online ecosystem becomes a cesspool for trolls as platforms fear the consequences of their own interference. Tumblr paints this dark picture after it recently banned adult content from its service; content that attracted Tumblr’s primary user-base. Though not officially claimed by Tumblr’s PR, many Internet law experts pin the ban on FOSTA, an act that criminalizes a platform for having “knowingly” promoted sex trafficking. Faced with the threat of high financial penalties and, in more serious cases, jail time, it’s not surprising that Internet companies like Tumblr would rather remove and ban content than simply moderate it. Congress calls it regulation. We should call it censorship; a modern-day form of book burning.
With all the controversy regarding fake news, biased algorithms, sex trafficking, and targeted censorship, it’s easy for regulators to push an attractive message to amend or even repeal Section 230. Today’s users need to understand that without 230, we open the doors to more censorship, less creative content, more shuttering of web services, less free speech, more malicious botting, more fake news, more digital borders, and if anything, less small companies and more “big tech.” If we don’t allow Internet companies to innovate and moderate then we’re destined for a world with less choices and more trolls. We must allow platforms to freely moderate as necessary and effectively balance their online ecosystem. We must recognize and combat online censorship rather than bolster and beseech it. We must be vigilant about our Internet and thus, we must be more exceptional and less emotional.