Dear Kara Swisher: Don't Let Your Hatred Of Facebook Destroy Free Speech Online
from the bad-takes dept
I’ll start this post off with a brief story about famed tech reporter Kara Swisher. Many, many years ago, she reached out to me and suggested we meet up for some reason or another (I honestly don’t remember why). I went to her house in San Francisco and we walked to a fancy nearby coffee shop where she insisted on telling me exactly what type of coffee I should get.
Here’s the thing: I don’t drink coffee. I can’t stand the stuff.
However, Swisher is such an incredible force of nature that I felt like I literally had no choice but to order the coffee that she recommended. I ordered it and drank (a bit of) it. And I’m not exactly a shrinking violet when it comes to expressing my own opinions on things.
That is to say, Swisher is not just strongly opinionated, she has a way of convincing lots of other people that her opinions should be theirs as well. And that’s a really powerful ability, and one that Swisher has wielded well over the past few decades — especially in calling bullshit on dumb tech ideas and policies. We need someone like Swisher holding tech companies accountable.
However, what happens when Swisher’s opinion is a bad one? She recently has become so focused on attacking Facebook (in some cases for good reasons) that her thinking on the company is going to cause an awful lot of harm to not just other reporters, but to free speech and the open internet. Last month I was shocked to find Swisher proactively cheering on government censorship in Sri Lanka, after the country blocked Facebook following the terrorist attacks in that country. We pointed out how shortsighted this was, and Trevor Timm from the Freedom of the Press Foundation was even more direct in his criticism, noting how it smacked of Western paternalism, in which “we” can handle free speech, but poor people “over there” somehow can’t.
Arguments like Swisher?s smack of ?otherism? and paternalism???ordinary Sri Lankans aren?t sophisticated enough to deal with these problems, we know better than they do, and we must trust their political leaders. It?s akin to the tired arguments made by many in the U.S. national security community that people in the Middle East ?can?t handle? democracy. It?s insulting.
Unfortunately, it appears that Swisher is continuing to argue for more and more censorship-by-Facebook — a company that she herself admits we cannot and should not trust. Her latest opinion piece at the NY Times, bizarrely, goes beyond just attacking Facebook to mistakenly attacking Section 230 of the CDA as well.
The story involves the latest “big controversy” on Facebook, in which some trolls have been posting slightly doctored videos of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, slowed down and (sometimes) edited, to make her appear to be slurring and stumbling over words. The videos have been getting passed around among Trump supporters — and Trump himself retweeted one of those doctored videos when it was featured on Fox News. There are plenty of reasons to decry the whole mess, as it’s a form of disiniformation and propaganda. After people called out Facebook about the video, the company proceeded to include a flag on the video, noting that it had been doctored, and downgrading the ability of the video to be spread more widely, but refusing to take it down entirely.
Many, many people (including Swisher) still disagree with this choice, arguing that since the video is being used for blatant propaganda and disinformation, it should be removed from Facebook entirely. Where you come down on this question may differ depending on where you sit. But Swisher goes beyond that, bizarrely (and ridiculously — and incorrectly) blaming Section 230 for this situation:
Would a broadcast network air this? Never. Would a newspaper publish it? Not without serious repercussions. Would a marketing campaign like this ever pass muster? False advertising.
No other media could get away with spreading anything like this because they lack the immunity protection that Facebook and other tech companies enjoy under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Section 230 was intended to spur innovation and encourage start-ups. Now it?s a shield to protect behemoths from any sensible rules.
This is wrong on so many levels that it makes me wonder where Swisher is getting her information from. Section 230 is what allows Facebook to flag and “demote” this video in the first place. Without it, the company would be held liable for any of the moderation choices it made (see: Stratton Oakmont v. Prodigy, the law that inspired CDA 230 and which CDA 230 explicitly overrules).
Without a CDA 230, platforms are incentvized to do one of two things: either look the other way and ignore basically all content, so as not to be held liable (which would make the situation Swisher is complaining about even worse), or to basically block almost everything that might possibly be controversial, meaning tons of perfectly legal and important speech would get blocked. This is not a good solution — and certainly not one that a reporter should be advocating for.
Also, her analysis is simply incorrect. First of all, the claim that “no media could get away” with this is proven incorrect by the fact that Fox News did, in fact, spread one of these videos. And if anyone sued Fox over this, it would win on 1st Amendment grounds. And there have not been “serious repercussions.” Unless you count whatever the fuck this tweet from Rudy Giuliani was supposed to say:
Second, the point of CDA 230 is that the internet does not work like a news publication. There is no “editor” who reviews what goes up, because it’s a communications medium, like the telephone. We don’t expect AT&T to monitor everything everyone says on the telephone (I mean, the NSA may expect it, but most people are rightfully horrified by this concept), so why should we expect the same here?
Some, including Swisher probably, would argue that they’re not asking for just ditching CDA 230, but amending it to require some sort of “responsibility”. But that also opens up massive questions — ones that Swisher seems unprepared to deal with. As the UN’s expert on free expression, David Kaye, suggested, just try to come up with rules that would force Facebook to remove the Pelosi video but wouldn’t then end up being used against dissent, humor, satire or other forms of protected speech:
homework assignment: draft the rule that prohibits doctored pelosi video but protects satire, political speech, dissent, humor etc. not so easy is it? https://t.co/zaA7kQf83i
— David Kaye (@davidakaye) May 25, 2019
Or, to be even more to the point, the EFF’s Jillian York noted that if you’re going to require that Facebook face responsibility for “disinformation” — or even disinformation that leads to harm — how exactly is Facebook expected to deal with religious information:
For those of you who think disinformation should be censored, please tell me where you stand on organized religion because if any disinformation has demonstrably harmed millions, it's that.
— jillian (@jilliancyork) May 27, 2019
For quite some time now, we’ve been talking about the “impossibility” of doing content moderation at scale well. There are always going to be disagreements. But Section 230 is what allows for experimentation. People can (and should) criticize Facebook when they think the company made the wrong call, but to blithely toss Section 230 under the bus as the reason for Facebook failing to meet her own exacting standards, Swisher is actually throwing the open internet and free speech under the bus instead. It’s a horrifically bad take, and one that Swisher should know better about.
And, if Swisher, wants, I’m happy to discuss this with her in more detail. Perhaps over a cup of tea.