Worth Reprinting Here: Issue #1
October 19, 2020
By Thomas Tass
In the current debate about the role of social media, information dissemination and censorship, an article by Telegraph correspondent Harry de Quetteville is worth reprinting here. The issue is clearly that "big tech is now big politics" and as social media and big tech corporations are now one and the same, free speech and all the ancillary portions of that right are in peril.
Facebook will regret crossing this Rubicon :Censoring a legitimate story about Joe Biden's son could be the start of an existential crisis
Author of the article: Harry de Quetteville, The Telegraph
Publishing date: Oct 19, 2020
Have you read the latest about Joe Biden, his son Hunter and the whiff of scandal? No, you probably haven’t, because the story has been whipped off social media faster than you can say “left-wing conspiracy.”
No wonder there’s outrage. It took 16 years after founding Facebook for Mark Zuckerberg to decide that posts denying the Holocaust should be banned. But a Biden-bashing scoop gets zapped in seconds. Of course many are fulminating about the latest flagrant example of new media’s anti-conservative bias.
They may be correct. I don’t think so. But in any case, their argument is a diversion. The important point here is that this is actually a flagrant example of Facebook behaving like a publisher. The Biden story is not Russian bot propaganda or anti-Semitic conspiracy. It is a newspaper article in the public interest, which has already had to jump through a whole load of legal hoops. Binning it is an editorial decision. Which means Facebook is a publisher. And that really is big news.
Because in Silicon Valley, the most important words in American law are not “We the people …” — that mellifluous opening paragraph to the U.S. Constitution, 1776 — but Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, 1996. At 26 words, its key paragraph is half the length of that opening to the constitution. But to Zuckerberg, it is every bit as important. Here it is: “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.”
It sounds dull, but is actually a real-life Get Out of Jail Free card, which allows Facebook, Google and the rest to carry content but not be responsible for it, even if it is libellous, malicious, spreads hatred or suggests that lizard-headed aliens have already taken over the world. To be, in the jargon, platforms and not publishers.
Of course when I say, “not responsible for,” I don’t mean in the sense of “not making money from.” Facebook is most certainly responsible for making money out of all this “content,” serving it up in a never-ending stream to keep users goggling away and watching ads as they go. How important is this ad business to Facebook? Critical. In the first six months of this year, Facebook’s revenue was US$36.4 billion ($48 billion), of which advertising comprised $35.7 billion. That’s 98 per cent. No content, no ads, no Facebook.
Now imagine if Facebook, with its 2.7 billion users, was a publisher responsible in a traditional sense for all the “content” it carried. Responsible for fact-checking, for legalling and for all those other burdensome and expensive tasks that are the publisher’s lot. This, in its sheer immensity, would be impossible, even with all Facebook’s whizzy machine-learning algorithms to flag up possible problems.
Indeed, even with its current 15,000 moderators, Facebook already struggles to keep on top of the web’s rankest outrages, from terrorist violence to child pornography. Those grotesqueries are so evident that this year a group of moderators sued Facebook, claiming the job caused post-traumatic stress disorder — and won $52 million. Spotting nuanced infractions of libel law — as they were posted, in real time — would require a vast, unsustainable army.
So Facebook only exists because it can shield behind Section 230, and Facebook can only shield behind Section 230 because it is not a publisher. Except that, increasingly, it is behaving like a publisher. The Biden story is merely the latest and most significant example. Facebook would argue that this apparently existential threat is no threat at all. That, technically, Section 230’s protections are not contingent on neutrality. That, technically, they depend on sites like itself making an effort to clean up. Which it is making. Such hubris has even led it to go so far as to admit that it is a publisher — in court.
Nemesis could swiftly follow. Whatever the technical niceties of Section 230, few others feel the same. , and Washington is coming for Silicon Valley — whoever wins the election. When that happens, many on both sides of the ideological divide will warily regard Facebook’s new activism and decide that burying the Biden story was the day it crossed a line.
The Daily Telegraph