Last Thursday, Big Tech CEOs Sundar Pichai (Google), Jack Dorsey (Twitter), and Zuck (Facebook) appeared before the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s hearing to take a beating answer some questions on the proposed changes to Section 230.
Let’s chat about it.
Remind me… what is Section 230?
It’s a law (under the Telecommunications Act of 1996) which says, in simple terms, that platforms can’t be held legally accountable for what their users post. More specifically, it says that platforms and internet service providers are not (legally) the publishers of the information they distribute among individual users.
Section 230 still requires platforms to remove certain forms of illegal material, like those which violate copyright law—but for the most part, it provides a legal separation between platforms and users.
Why is Section 230 important for platforms like Facebook and Twitter?
Section 230 has been dubbed “the 26 words that created the Internet” because it’s what made virtually all online public platforms possible as we know them. But by this point, it does even more to make big platforms possible and profitable.
Without Section 230, a platform’s every user would be a liability, a potential lawsuit waiting to happen; it’s nigh-impossible to scale under those conditions, certainly not to the point where you can freely connect the world’s people and information.
That mostly makes sense… so why is Section 230 under attack?
The main issue here is less the law itself, more what happens when platforms under its protection become as large and ubiquitous as Big Tech has.
To oversimplify things: we didn’t see the last few years coming, certainly not back in 1996. We could barely imagine concepts like Facebook or Twitter or Google, let alone what would happen if they became enormous and ever-present in our lives. The law did not yet understand its own limitations.
One of the major weaknesses of Section 230 is its inability to see the dangers created by connecting the whole world together. It’s largely concerned with platform users breaking the law, yet so much of Big Tech’s danger is the sum of perfectly legal acts. Take, for example, misinformation; it’s not a crime to share information which happens to be false or misleading (and most people do so unknowingly), but it can cause huge problems for society at large.
Big Platforms have mostly shrugged at these problems because Section 230 has granted them generous legal immunity. Getting rid of Section 230 would be like turning off the “legal immune system” for platforms and forcing them to develop new and much stronger versions from scratch.
How did last week’s hearing go?
Still not the efficient machine of justice we would prefer (see below), but Congress is yet again proving that they’re doing (at least some of) their homework, and both parties are pursuing Big Tech with remarkably little partisan squabbling.
As for the three CEOs on camera… well, you’ve seen it all before. Lots of stock, vague, “will need to get back to you” kind of stuff to run out the clock.
Any final thoughts in summary? We appreciate TechCrunch’s constructive cynicism: these hearings probably are a waste of time, even if they’re the best idea we’ve got right now. These hearings have a handful of fundamental flaws, among them (A) an archaic and inefficient format, (B) too many politicians for the allotted time, and (C) putting the wrong people in the hot seat.
One bone thrown to the CEOs: most members of Congress want a clear “yes” or “no” answer, yet they don’t often ask clear “yes or no” questions. Thus, Jack Dorsey’s mid-hearing Twitter poll: