Social media corporations want new rule e book after riot

Congress must decide whether social media companies correspond to newspapers or telephones.

Newspapers are legally responsible for their content, including advertising. This newspaper does not publish a full-page advertisement defaming any person or company. There will also be no militia recruiting fighters to overthrow the government.

Telephone companies, on the other hand, are forbidden to eavesdrop on your calls, let alone cut off the line when you say something inflammatory. Thousands of people discuss criminal and offensive topics every day.

Social media platforms tried to strike a middle ground and it didn’t work. Under Section 230 of the Communication Decency Act, technology companies are harmed if their customers post illegal or offensive material and give companies the option to delete the content at their own discretion.

Nobody is happy with this arrangement.

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Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, has famously stated that he is not a publisher and should play a minimal role in content monitoring. President Donald Trump and his supporters took advantage, and the world saw the consequences in the U.S. Capitol.

In response, Facebook, Twitter, Google, Amazon and others have banned Trump and his most radical sympathizers. The ill-informed explain these actions as violating the First Amendment. But a quick reminder: Our most important civil liberty only protects us from government action, not corporate action.

Newspapers and other businesses also have rights, including the option to refuse to serve someone based on their political views. When Facebook allowed neo-Nazis into their service, the public demanded that Zuckerberg put a ban, and most of us welcomed it.

But almost everyone agrees that while Section 230 made sense for the Internet in the 1990s, Congress needs to update it.

“I believe we need a more active role for governments and regulators,” Zuckerberg wrote in a comment in March last year. “By updating the rules for the Internet, we can keep the best of it.”

He recommended that the government set up a third party to define harmful content rather than relying on a CEO’s judgment. All social media companies would follow the same rules, creating tools to identify problematic posts and users to remove them faster.

Facebook also wants Congress to establish rules for online political advertising such as broadcast and print. And since Facebook already follows the general European data protection regulation for data protection, the US should adopt it as well.

Internet activists and right-wing groups would prefer Congress to make social media more like the phone company: conduits with no responsibility for who publishes what and where everyone has limitless freedom of speech.

The difference between a newspaper and a phone company is how they make money. One charges for the service, the other sells ads for the content. Social media companies lose money when offensive material drives users away. Advertisers want to reach middle-class families who post vacation photos, not fascist militants planning a riot.

A new social media service called Clubhouse, mimicking old school phone lines, brings the debate to the point.

Her Schtick is a voice service where people can organize live chats in themed club rooms. A user moderator decides who is allowed to speak. When the conversation ends, there is no lingering trace or post. The company keeps a record for an hour in case anyone files a complaint. The discussion is then automatically deleted.

One evening I enjoyed discussing old films with actress and director Justine Bateman and venture capitalist Marc Andreesen. I enjoyed listening to Nigerians discuss police reforms and the service is especially popular with people of color.

This does not mean that white supremacists and anti-Semites did not hold meetings in the clubhouse as well. And at this stage, when only invitations are possible, there is already controversy about who is on the platform and who is allowed to join.

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Should the clubhouse allow twice-accused President Donald Trump to hold rallies accusing President Joe Biden of thousands of supporters? How is Clubhouse upholding its ban on recording or reporting these chats?

How will you investigate complaints when dozens of simultaneous conversations become thousands? In limited media interviews, the founders struggled to explain this.

Every freedom goes hand in hand with an associated responsibility. You can “fire!” Screaming in a crowded movie theater, but you can be punished for the consequences. Right-wing extremists are now discovering that calling for a violent attack on the Capitol could lead to federal prosecution.

Congress owes clearer rules for social media. If they make money from user-provided content, companies need to take more responsibility for it. If you can’t figure out how to make money this way, you can always ask a newspaper publisher for advice.

Chris Tomlinson is commenting on economics, economics and politics.

twitter.com/cltomlinson

chris.tomlinson@chron.com

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