If Your Takeaway From Facebook's Whistleblower Is That Section 230 Needs Reform, You Just Got Played By Facebook
from the that's-what-it-wants dept
Here we go again. Yesterday, the Facebook whistleblower, Frances Haugen, testified before the Senate Commerce Committee. Frankly, she came across as pretty credible and thoughtful, even if I completely disagree with some of her suggestions. I think she’s correct about some of the problems she witnessed, and the misalignment of incentives facing Facebook’s senior management. However, her understanding of the possible approaches to deal with it is, unfortunately, a mixed bag.
Of course, for the Senators in the hearing, it became the expected exercise in confirmation bias, in which they each insisted that their plan to fix the internet would solve the problems Haugen detailed. And, not surprisingly, many of them insisted that Section 230 was the issue, and that if you magically changed 230 and made companies more liable, they’d somehow be better. Leaving aside that there is zero evidence to support this (and plenty of evidence to suggest the opposite is true), the most telling bit in all of this is that if you think changing Section 230 is the answer Facebook agrees with you. It’s exactly what Facebook wants. See the smarmy, tone-deaf, self-serving statement the company put out in response to the hearing:
Today, a Senate commerce subcommittee held a hearing with a former product manager at Facebook who worked for the company for less than two years, had no direct reports, never attended a decision-point meeting with C-level executives — and testified more than six times to not working on the subject matter in question. We don’t agree with her characterization of the many issues she testified about. Despite all this, we agree on one thing; it’s time to begin to create standard rules for the internet. It’s been 25 years since rules for the internet have been updated, and instead of expecting the industry to make societal decisions that belong to legislators, it is time for Congress to act.
Facebook has been blanketing Washington DC (and elsewhere, but mostly DC) with ads saying that it’s time to update internet laws that haven’t changed since 1996. And that message is very clearly talking about Section 230.
Earlier this year, also in front of Congress, Mark Zuckerberg came out in favor of Section 230 reform. The company’s plan really isn’t all that different than what some elected officials are now proposing in a variety of short-sighted bills: increase liability on the companies for failure to have “best practices.” But as we’ve noted, what’s clear is that Facebook is one of the few companies that can afford that liability. Facebook can afford the expensive lawyers to go to court and show that their system of dealing with this stuff (which we already know doesn’t work very well) is a “best practice” leading them to get these cases dismissed.
Smaller companies are going to be bankrupted by this. And those that aren’t bankrupted are going to end up turning to Facebook to handle their moderation, so that they can rely on Facebook’s legal might. It’s going to entrench Facebook’s power position, limit competition, and wipe out more innovative approaches. Of course Facebook supports this nonsense.
So for those who are still supporting changes to Section 230 and even pointing to Haugen’s testimony: congrats, you got played by Facebook. You’re advocating for exactly what Facebook wants.
I forget who I’ve heard say this (perhaps it was Cory Doctorow?), but, paraphrasing, the statement was that of course a company would prefer no regulation, but the 2nd best thing to no regulation is being heavily regulated, because as long as you’re at the top of the heap and know you can deal with the regulators, you’ve got a massive advantage that no other company can deal with. And, for a company that is so paranoid about competition, and is unsure how to continue winning against upstarts, leaning on the US government to “regulate” the space is a godsend. It’s exactly what Facebook wants, and those supporting it are playing into Facebook’s hands.