Hey Tom Wheeler: Stick To Net Neutrality, Because Your Understanding Of Section 230 Is… Not Right

from the the-return-of-dingo dept

Remember back when former FCC chair Tom Wheeler surprised us all and turned out not to be a dingo. That was cool. But now that he’s out of government and working at the Brookings Institution, he’s perhaps not a dingo, but he does seem very, very confused.

He’s written a very strange piece entitled Technology, tribalism, and truth, which sounds like it should be interesting, but turns out to be quite a head-scratcher. It starts out talking about the vote counting fiasco at the Iowa caucus caused by faulty technology, and how it could “sow seeds of doubt about the functioning of democracy itself.” As we wrote in our piece about it — that’s not exactly a reasonable lesson to take from the fact that using software meant that votes were counted later than people had hoped. There are plenty of other concerns about the functioning of democracy itself that can come out of the Iowa caucus process — but those have little to do with the faulty software.

But Wheeler then uses that one faulty app, that simply delayed vote counts, as a weird springboard to attack social media:

Social media undermines what the Founding Fathers were focusing on when they wrote ?We the People? and established the motto ?E Pluribus Unum? (out of many, one). The concept of ?We? and the formation of a ?Unum? is essential for democracy to work. Humans are inherently tribal. Democracy requires us to overcome that tribalism?to find our Unum?in the pursuit of a greater good. In contrast, the business plans of the dominant digital companies are built on dividing us into tribes in order to sell targeted access to each tribe.

I know that many people have a faith-based belief that social media has divided us into tribes, but there’s little empirical evidence to back that up. Indeed, social media has connected more people to other “tribes” and other people than any other system in history. And there’s little in the “business plans” of social media that is helped by “dividing us into tribes.” Indeed, I think Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and others would be a ton happier if their platforms weren’t used for tribal behavior, and if they could stop having to respond to news reports claiming as such.

And then, apparently it’s all Section 230’s fault, again, for unclear reasons:

Not only does the business plan of the internet enable such attacks, but also the lack of curation allows lies to run rampant. In 1996 Congress exempted digital services from liability for what they distribute. It was a time when the internet was defined by screeching modems, services such as AOL and CompuServe, and a technology full of promise. A quarter of a century later that exemption?known as Section 230?has become the pathway for liars, both foreign and domestic. Instead of protecting the open flow of a rich debate, this law has protected the secret sorting and delivery of untruths and half-truths without accountability.

This paragraph is so full of wrong it’s embarrassing. First of all, just a paragraph earlier in the piece, Wheeler was attacking curation, in that it allowed Russians to influence an election — and then in the very next paragraph he argues that Section 230 (the 1996 act of Congress he’s discussing), there’s a “lack of curation.” Uh, which is it? Also, there is no lack of curation. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, they all curate. They curate a ton. That’s why lots of people are angry at them. Others are angry that they curate too much. But to argue they don’t curate… is… just… wrong. Very, very, wrong.

And, by the end of the paragraph, he’s back to admitting that they do curate. They just don’t curate the way he wants them to. I’m curious as to how he thinks 230 has anything to do with that? If his complaint is the “secret” part of the sorting — well, that’s not a 230 issue at all. If his complaint is with the delivery of untruths and half-truths… well, then his complaint is with the 1st Amendment. If his complaint is with the curation part itself, then he’s still confused because he doesn’t seem to understand how it works at any social media platform.

And then… it gets even more bizarre. He brings up the Fairness Doctrine — which the FCC used to enforce in making broadcast TV stations have to show “both sides” of various stories. Republicans hated it and fought hard against it. Many Republicans also falsely claimed that net neutrality was a “fairness doctrine for the internet” (it was not). Ironically, many of those Republicans (Hi Ted Cruz!) are now supporting what is a special fairness doctrine for the internet, designed to stop internet platforms from banning Nazis, who happen to support their campaigns.

But, Wheeler brings up the Fairness Doctrine… to explain why Rush Limbaugh got the Presidential Medal of Freedom, as a lead in to why the internet is bad… and I’ve read this multiple times and still can’t figure out what he’s trying to say.

Congress acted to assure that conflicting ideas had access to the airwaves. After seeing how Hitler manipulated the German public using the media, and with the rising fear of Communism, in 1949 the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) imposed a Fairness Doctrine on broadcasters to require the airing of all sides of a controversial issue.

The Fairness Doctrine was repealed by the Reagan FCC in 1987. The result was conservative talk radio. That Rush Limbaugh could stand and receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom during the State of the Union is testimony to the effect of eliminating the requirement for radio stations to present all sides of an issue.

Sure, the end of the Fairness Doctrine allowed for one-sided radio and TV. We know that. But what’s that got to do with the internet?

But you can turn the dial if you don?t want to listen to Rush. There is less choice with social media. What economists call ?network effects? mean everyone wants to be on the social media platform everyone else is on. The result is a captive audience to be secretly sorted and served by software.

What? No, Tom, no. That’s not how any of this works. There is plenty of choice in social media. You can choose who you follow. You can choose who to block and who not to follow. You can choose not to use certain platforms. You have tons of choice. It does not force things upon you like you claim. Has Tom Wheeler ever actually used social media?

What should replace Section 230? Our democracy, after all is built on strong First Amendment protections. However, laws require advertisers to be truthful in their claims, and for broadcasters to follow behavioral standards. Newspapers can be held liable for what they publish?but what about the newspaper?s digital equivalent? Because a digital company distributes information on the internet, Section 230 sets it free of basic responsibilities.

Your complaint is with the First Amendment, not 230, Tom. Even if Section 230 sets them “free of basic responsibilities,” that ignores just how much responsibility each and every internet platform has taken. And that’s for two reasons. First, Section 230 does allow them to moderate content and to experiment with the best way how. That’s important. But, more important, is that every platform moderates because of public pressure to do so. Every platform has hired thousands upon thousands of moderators, and invested in all sorts of technology, because they know if they don’t, their platforms become filled with nonsense and spam and abuse and harassment.

The complaint that Tom has about moderation is that it doesn’t moderate content the way they want them to moderate. But that’s not a 230 issue. That’s a “you’re not the ones making the moderation decisions” problem.

Unfortunately, Wheeler’s piece is all too similar to many of the other people, ignorant of how content moderation actually works, think: they think that mistakes they find out about in moderation are due to some malicious reason — either a failure to moderate, or a willingness not to moderate for economic reasons. But that’s not what’s happening. All these platforms spend a ton on moderation, and mistakes are still made because mistakes are inevitable. That’s not the fault of Section 230. And a fairness doctrine doesn’t help.

The solution remains the same as Wheeler thought it was for radio: just turn the damn dial. Don’t follow people who spew misinformation. Don’t like their posts and don’t share them. Or debunk them, like I’m doing with all of the misinformation in Wheeler’s own post.

Truth cannot be allowed to become a casualty of technology. The search for democratic Unum cannot be allowed to become a casualty of technology. It is no wonder cynicism abounds when untruth and tribalism are the result of our principal communications tool. Historically, society has stepped up to the challenges of new technology. Now is our historic moment.

The untruth and tribalism are your post, Tom. That’s the problem.

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Comments on “Hey Tom Wheeler: Stick To Net Neutrality, Because Your Understanding Of Section 230 Is… Not Right”

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This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile) says:


"sow seeds of doubt about the functioning of democracy itself."

I had seeds of doubt about the functioning of democracy itself when I learned that politicians lie with impunity, several (or maybe many) decades ago.

Then the Supreme Court ensconced money in politics with its Citizens United v. FEC decision and my doubts skyrocketed.

Next we can talk about tribes. There’s law enforcement, and the rest of us. There are those in power who want more power and to reduce our ability to impact their power. Then there is a whole scale of ideologies, constantly amending itself, from the ultra far right to the ultra far left. They war against each other without actually knowing where the other stands, but because labels. Adding to the list of tribes, and loosely tied to those ideologies mentioned, are political parties, who endeavor to control who you are allowed to vote for by controlling the various nomination processes, and with party indoctrination an ongoing duopoly which makes third parties less than viable.

Now to address Mr Wheeler’s screed about rampant lies, he fails to understand that no platform, internet or print, has an actual responsibility to protect anyone from lies, hell they print whatever lie comes out of politicians mouths all the time. That the cure for bad speech is more speech and Wheeler seems to be wanting to curb speech, one has to conclude that he isn’t angry about lies, he is angry about lies he doesn’t like.

This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Whaaaaaa!

Why, then, can a newspaper be sued for false advertising but a website cannot?

Libel is not free speech. Republication (distribution) of liable is a separate act committed by a separate individual from the speaker, and can cause a separate harm.

EVERY other country has refused to adopt 230-style immunity; America stands alone in this regard, yet acts like the whole world is just wrong and it, of course, is right…and exceptional.

BTW mods censoring anti-230 beliefs might not play well with the conference on abolishing 230.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:

Re: Re:

A few things.

  1. 230 isn’t explicitly about false advertising. Go bother the FTC.
  2. Unless a U.S. court rules or has ruled that republication of defamatory speech is a separate harm for which people can be successfully sued, your assertion in that regard doesn’t mean shit.
  3. The government of China doesn’t provide local web services with 230-style immunity. The government of China also controls damn near the entirety of the Chinese Internet. I doubt you want the United States government making judgment calls on what speech is acceptable for distribution through any medium.
  4. Moderation is not censorship. Your comments will stop being flagged when you stop being a willfully ignorant asshole.
Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Moderation is not censorship. Your comments will stop being flagged when you stop being a willfully ignorant asshole.

Someone seems to be speaking as if they run the site, or they wouldn’t know the motive. Censorship is still censorship and the slanted language against someone who happens to be conservative….

BTW 230 does relate to the FTC because it immunizes websites against liability for false or illegal advertising, such as housing or employment discrimination. It also allows for businesses or individuals to be targeted by rivals or other. There’s a reason NO OTHER COUNTRY has an equivalent law.

Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2

Someone seems to be speaking as if they run the site, or they wouldn’t know the motive.

Your comments wouldn’t be flagged if you acted less like a willfully ignorant asshole and more like someone seeking a legitimate good faith discussion.

Censorship is still censorship

Except you’re not being censored. Not only are your flagged comments still on the site, you can copy-paste them to any other website that will host them without fear of being sued or jailed for doing that. The flagging of your posts is a simple message: “Your comment isn’t worth openly displaying to other readers. They can choose to see it if they want.” That isn’t censorship. That is moderation.

and the slanted language against someone who happens to be conservative

So what? I don’t see you whining about Fox News and Breitbart running hit pieces on progressives, liberals, Democrats, and Michael Bloomberg.

230 does relate to the FTC because it immunizes websites against liability for false or illegal advertising

230 does not such thing unless the website had no hand in approving, producing, or altering the advertising in question. A site can run ads from an ad network and have little-to-no control over the content of those ads; for what reason should the site, and not the ad network, be held liable for adcontent in such cases?

It also allows for businesses or individuals to be targeted by rivals or other.

No, it doesn’t.

There’s a reason NO OTHER COUNTRY has an equivalent law.

Has any other country needed an equivalent law as a result of a court ruling that, were it to have been upheld by the nation’s highest court, would make companies liable for their moderation decisions?

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Whaaaaaa!

"Then the Supreme Court ensconced money in politics with its Citizens United v. FEC decision and my doubts skyrocketed."

Note, however, that the real reason democracy is in trouble is always, invariably, the fact that voters end up being easily led sheep. Politicians get away with anything because we allow them to do so.

It’s a fact that every politician today can be sacked by the citizenry. It’s also a fact that the citizenry can rarely be arsed to do so. With predictable results. Corporations stay honest because the phenomenon of audits exist. Politicians know, for a fact, that before the auditor even looks their way they almost have to be caught on tape while standing over a corpse, with a smoking gun in hand.

Politicians and public servants have never been discouraged from lying, so why should they abstain from what appears to be a viable and rewarding standard practice?

That One Guy (profile) says:

Annnd it's gone

And like that any respect I might have had for him thanks to his previous position just took a dive right into the mud, replaced by either pity or disgust that he either got conned by laughably bad arguments, or has joined the ‘trash on 230 for personal gain’ fad.

If he actually thinks that those arguments are good ones he needs to do some more research to understand just how bad they are and correct himself, and if he’s just doing this for personal gain, well, hope he enjoys having ‘supporter of giant platforms, enemy of the public and free speech’ as his new legacy, overshadowing whatever good he may have done before.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Annnd it's gone

"It is sad that people tend to get remembered for the worst things they do, rather than the best."

Let me run a quick reductio ad hitlerum around that argument and describe a gentleman who sponsored the arts, loved dogs, was a highly popular public speaker and was instrumental not only in commissioning the first freeway road network but managed to get almost every family in his country a car of their own to use it with.

Suffice to say that it’s for the best we remember herr hitler for his legacy of race hate and genocide rather than his more humane qualities.

Anonymous Coward says:


I think it’s rather telling that Tom decides to really ride the "Unum" part of the motto … he’s certainly interested in just one (himself), so I suppose it should be no surprise.
it’s the "Pluribus" part that makes it democracy… if you’re focused on that ‘Unum’ part then you’re probably advocating something closer to a Dictatorship or Monarchy… you know, something that allows for a bit more Tyranny!

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Anonymous Coward says:

Their is a good reason to believe the election process has been corrupted by wireless technologies.

The UN-truths about people’s UN-designation are also important. Especially in light of continued cyber-extremism.

As for tribalism, it is a fact there are unions, tribes clans, and morally impaired klans involved lawfully in US politics, but certain foreign organizations are constantly unlawfully interfering.

In my engineering opinion net-neutrality cannot be enforced until the unlawful foreign extremism can be physically removed from the network architecture.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

In my engineering opinion net-neutrality cannot be enforced until…..

Net Neutrality applies to the communication layers of the network, and not the content layers. Without it, it becomes possible for your local ISP to decide what sites you can visit, and how to bundle up access to various sites to maximize their profits.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Unless you can design an architecture where there is no destination knowledge available to your ISP, net neutrality is a regulation issue. Note, TOR does not achieve that objective as the entry node/next node addresses are available to the ISP, and that allows them to block traffic is they wish to, and regulations do not prevent them from doing so.

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