Thanks To Section 230, I Can Correct Wired's Portrayal Of My Section 230 Advocacy
from the speaking-about-speaking-about-speech dept
I always thought it would be a great honor to be referenced in the hallowed pages of WIRED magazine. Like Mike, I’ve been reading it since its beginning, as a then student studying information technology and watching the Internet take hold in the world.
This week it finally happened, and ugh… My work was referenced in support of a terrible take on Section 230, which not only argued that Section 230 should be repealed (something that I spend a great deal of personal and professional energy trying to push back against) but masqueraded as a factual explanation of how there was no possible reasonable defense of the law and that therefore all its defenders (including me) are, essentially, pulling a fast one on the public by insisting it is important to hold onto. After all, as the title says, “Everything you’ve heard about Section 230 is wrong,” including, it would seem, everything we’ve been saying about it all along.
Such an assertion is, of course, ridiculous. But this isn’t the first bad Section 230 take and unfortunately is unlikely to be the last, so if that were all it was it might be much easier to simply let it fade into history. But that wasn’t all it was, because the piece didn’t just make that general statement; it used my own work to do it, and in the most disingenuous way.
Ordinarily, of course, my work can speak for itself. The problem was, the author of this piece didn’t let it speak for itself. Instead he stripped it of its context, plucking out only bits of the overall argument, citing ideas so incompletely, so orphaned from the overall message in which they were delivered, as to effectively mischaracterize my position. And then he used that mischaracterization of what I had argued as ammunition to underpin his anti-230 argument.
Nor did the author let me speak for my work either, which could have corrected his apparent misapprehensions, if not about Section 230’s merit at large, then at least the bigger picture I was getting at in the particular brief he had honed in on. But despite speaking with several of the law’s detractors, he spoke to only one of its defenders, even though he obviously considered several of us expert enough to misleadingly reference our work in support of his dubious argument.
It reads as a hit piece, not just against the law itself but its supporters, and one that he was apparently so determined to make that speaking with us, and affording us the chance to explain our views and what informs them, was not something he could chance. After all, we might have convinced him of the statute’s merit, or at least given him some actual factual fodder to include in his supposedly factual accounting of the law, and that was obviously not the piece he wanted to write.
And so it turns out that my first mention in WIRED is a misrepresentation of my advocacy. Which is rather depressing, personally, but it raises another issue, and one that ties back into the advocacy I do defending the statute and why I do it so fervently.
I don't disagree with you there. And I will be writing a rebuttal. Of course, some of us don't have the resources of Conde Nast to push it out. But that's okay, after 230 is changed and we go away, it'll clear the field of people like me and leave it for you guys.
— Mike Masnick (@mmasnick) May 6, 2021
It’s because the only way to make sure that my actual views can get widely expressed is to express them directly myself, and for that I need to use outlets that are protected by Section 230, like Twitter. Or maybe sometimes Facebook. Or even (as we always point out in our briefs) a site like Techdirt. If I have things to say, I obviously cannot depend on traditional media gatekeepers like Conde Nast magazines to help me say them. And while I am obviously eager to set the record straight on my free speech advocacy, I don’t just speak for myself in expressing this concern. Without this law, we would all be without these outlets and without these opportunities to express ourselves publicly, even when we need to. Which would ultimately foreclose a lot of expression, including plenty of even more necessary expression.
This stark calculus is also why it is so odd to see some of the law’s opponents (including those who were actually quoted in the article) praise the article for having included lots of voices in it. Sure, it shared some voices. But only some. And the absence of other voices shows why Section 230 is so needed: because often Section 230-enabled outlets are the only way many voices ? including the most marginalized and vulnerable many of these advocates profess to be championing ? can be heard.
Of course, to this point the anti-230 people unhappy about being de-platformed may say, “See? We told you it’s bad to lose access to an online outlet for expression. So get rid of 230 so we can come back!” But this call to change Section 230 is silly, for a number of reasons. One is that Section 230 is not at the root of their de-platforming; the First Amendment is. Secondly, while I’m unhappy about WIRED’s editorial decision to publish this piece of questionable journalism, I remain perfectly happy and committed to defending its right to publish its questionable journalism. Nobody’s expression is vindicated by using law to limit anyone else’s expressive rights, even if they have used them questionably; if anything, the situation calls for doubling down on speech protection, including with a law like Section 230 that makes First Amendment rights less illusory and more substantively meaningful for everyone.
Furthermore, as the Copia Institute has talked about many times in our Section 230 advocacy, there is an internal balance to Section 230 that allows it to work effectively. In order to get the most beneficial and least deleterious content online that we can overall, platforms need to be legally safe to leave as much as they want up and take as much as they want down. When either protection, currently guaranteed by Section 230, starts to disappear, it starts tying platforms’ hands such that they are no longer able to do the best they can on either front. In other words, making it legally impossible for platforms to remove users is not going to lead to more valuable and less problematic content online. It will just put platforms under strain and make it hard for them to be available for anyone to use.
So repealing Section 230 is not going to help anyone speak online. And that includes both the people who have been de-platformed and also the vulnerable who always need to have a platform available to be able to speak out against those who would seek to hurt them. Which often, ironically, is the very same people complaining of being de-platformed. It is very strange to see the law’s opponents quoted in the article, who often claim to oppose the law as a means of protecting the vulnerable, push for a policy change that will only make the vulnerable even more so. Especially when it’s the exact same policy change that people who would want to hurt the vulnerable keep calling for themselves. They can’t both be right, and the fact that these two fundamentally opposed groups would seem to want the same thing itself suggests that neither of them are.
What this episode shows is that people cannot be dependent on the traditional media gatekeepers to enable their public expression, no matter how much they need to be able to express it. In fact, the less powerful the voice, the more important it is that these voices not be dependent on gatekeepers to speak so that they can always be able to speak against those who might hurt them. And so they need Section 230 to exist to enable other outlets they can use instead (including, potentially, their own, which Section 230 makes it much more practically possible to make). Without that law, and without these outlets, we will be without that expression, and that will be no good for anyone.