from the this-is-astounding dept
On Monday morning, Protocol hosted an interesting discussion on Reimagining Section 230 with two of its reporters, Emily Birnbaum and Issie Lapowsky. It started with those two reporters interviewing Senator Mark Warner about his SAFE TECH Act, which I’ve explained is one of the worst 230 bills I’ve seen and would effectively end the open internet. For what it’s worth, since posting that I’ve heard from a few people that Senator Warner’s staffers are now completely making up lies about me to discredit my analysis, while refusing to engage on the substance, so that’s nice. Either way I was curious to see what Warner had to say.
The Warner section begins at 12 minutes into the video if you want to just watch that part and it’s… weird. It’s hard to watch this and not come to the conclusion that Senator Warner doesn’t understand what he’s talking about. At all. It’s clear that some people have told him about two cases in which he disagrees with the outcome (Grindr and Armslist), but that no one has bothered to explain to him any of the specifics of either those cases, or what his law would actually do. He also doesn’t seem to understand how 230 works now, or how various internet websites actually handle content moderation. It starts out with him (clearly reading off a talking point list put in front of him) claiming that Section 230 has “turned into a get out of jail free card for large online providers to do nothing for foreseeable, obvious and repeated misuse of their platform.”
Um. Who is he talking about? There are, certainly, a few smaller platforms — notably Gab and Parler — that have chosen to do little. But the “large online platforms” — namely Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube — all have huge trust & safety efforts to deal with very difficult questions. Not a single one of them is doing “nothing.” Each of them has struggled, obviously, in figuring out what to do, but it’s not because of Section 230 giving them a “get out of jail free card.” It’s because they — unlike Senator Warner, apparently — recognize that every decision has tradeoffs and consequences and error bars. And if you’re too aggressive in one area, it comes back to bite you somewhere else.
One of the key points that many of us have tried to raise over the years is that any regulation in this area should be humble in recognizing that we’re asking private companies to solve big societal problems that governments have spent centuries trying, and failing, to solve. Yet, Warner just goes on the attack — as if Facebook is magically why bad stuff happens online.
Warner claims — falsely — that his bill would not restrict anyone’s free speech rights. Warner argues that Section 230 protects scammers, but that’s… not true? Scammers still remain liable for any scam. Also, I’m not even sure what he’s talking about because he says he wants to stop scamming by advertisers. Again, scamming by advertisers is already illegal. He says he doesn’t want the violation of civil rights laws — but, again, that’s already illegal for those doing the discriminating. The whole point of 230 is to put the liability on the actual responsible party. Then he says that we need Section 230 to correct the flaws of the Grindr ruling — but it sounds like Warner doesn’t even understand what happened in that case.
His entire explanation is a mess, which also explains why his bill is a mess. Birnbaum asks Warner who from the internet companies he consulted with in crafting the bill. This is actually a really important question — because when Warner released the bill, he said that it was developed with the help of civil rights groups, but never mentioned anyone with any actual expertise or knowledge about content moderation, and that shows in the clueless way the bill is crafted. Warner’s answer is… not encouraging. He says he talked with Facebook and Google’s policy people. And that’s a problem, because as we recently described, the internet is way more than Facebook and Google. Indeed, this bill would help Facebook and Google by basically making it close to impossible for new competitors to exist, while leaving the market to those two. Perhaps the worst way to get an idea of what any 230 proposal would do is to only talk to Facebook and Google.
Thankfully, Birnbaum immediately pushed back on that point, saying g that many critics have noted that smaller platforms would inevitably be harmed by Warner’s bill, and asking if Warner had spoken to any of these smaller platforms. His answer is revealing. And not in a good way. First, he ignores Birnbaum’s question, and then claims that when Section 230 was written it was designed to protect startups, and that now it’s being “abused” by big companies. This is false. And Section 230’s authors have said this is false (and one of them is a colleague of Warner’s in the Senate, so it’s ridiculous that he’s flat out misrepresenting things here). Section 230 was passed to protect Prodigy — which was a service owned by IBM and Sears. Neither of those were startups.
Birnbaum: Critics have said that small platforms and publishers will be disproportionately harmed by some of these sweeping Section 230 reforms, including those contained within your bill. So did you have an ongoing conversation with some of those smaller platforms before the bill was introduced? Are you open to any changes that would ensure that they are not disproportionately harmed while Facebook just pays more, which they can afford?
Warner:Section 230 in the late ’90s was then about protecting those entrepreneurial startups. What it has transformed into is a “get-out-of-jail-free” card for the largest companies in the world, to not moderate their content, but frankly, to ignore repeated misuse abuse in a way that we’ve tried to address.
What an odd way to respond to a question about smaller websites — to immediately focus on the largest companies, and not ever address the question being raised.
Lapowsky jumps in to point out that Warner is not answering the question, and that to just focus on the (false) claim that the “big tech” platforms use 230 as a “get out of jail free card” ignores all the many smaller sites who use it to help deal with frivolous and vexatious litigation. Lapowsky follows that up by noting, correctly, that it’s really the 1st Amendment that protects many of the things that Warner is complaining about, and that Section 230 has the procedural benefits that help get such cases kicked out of court earlier. Her question on this is exactly right and really important: Facebook and Google can spend the money to hire the lawyers to succeed on 1st Amendment grounds on those cases. Smaller platforms (like, say, ours) cannot.
Warner, looking perturbed, completely misses the point, and stumbles around with a bunch of half sentences before finally trying to pick a direction to go in. But one thing Warner does not do is actually answer Lapowsky’s question. He just repeats what he claims his law will do (ignoring the damage it will actually do). He also claims that the law is being used against the wishes of the authors (the authors have explicitly denied this). He also claims — based on nothing — that the courts have “dramatically expanded” what 230 covers, and that other lawmakers don’t understand the difference between the 1st Amendment and 230.
And then things go completely off the rails. Lapowsky pushes back, gently, on Warner’s misunderstanding of the point and intent of 230, and Warner cuts her off angrily, again demonstrating his near total ignorance of the issue at hand and refusing to address her actual point, but just slamming the table insisting that the big companies are somehow ignoring all bad stuff on their websites. This is (1) simply not true and (2) completely unrelated to the point Lapowsky is making about every other website. What’s incredible is how petulant Warner gets when asked to defend just the very basics of his terrible law.
Lapowsky: There’s also another part of your bill, though, that deals with affirmative defense requirements. And the idea is basically so defendants couldn’t just immediately fast track to the 230 defense to get cases quickly dismissed. And this is something a lot of critics say, effectively, guts the main purpose of Section 230 protections. So tell me a little bit about why you introduced this requirement.
Warner: Are you saying that the original intent of Section 230 was to in a sense, wipe away folks’ legal rights?
Lapowsky: Not the intent, but certainly?
But if we’re gonna go back to the intent of the legislation, versus the way the courts have so dramatically expanded what was potentially the original intent, I think it’s one of the reasons why we’re having this debate. And candidly, some policymakers may not be as familiar with the nuance and the differential between First Amendment rights, which we want to stand by and protect, and what we think has been the misuse of this section and the over-expansion of the court’s rulings. We want to draw it back in and to make sure that things that are already illegal ? like for example, illegal paid scams that take place on a lot of these platforms, I actually think there should be an ability to bring a suit against those kinds of illegal scams. The idea that you can flash your “get-out-of-jail” Section 230 card up front, before you even get to the merits of any of those discussions, I just respectfully think ought to not be the policy of the United States.
Lapowsky: My understanding of the intent was that this was a bill that was meant to encourage good faith efforts to moderate content, but also protect companies when they get things wrong, when they don’t catch all the content or when they take something down that they shouldn’t have. And obviously, this was written at a time when the internet?
Can I just ask, are you saying that Section 230 has reinforced good faith intent on moderation? Again, if that’s your view of how it’s been used by the large platforms, we just have a fundamental disagreement. I think Section 230 has been used and abused by the most powerful companies in the world.
Lapowsky: I wouldn’t?
[They’ve been allowed] to not act responsibly, and instead it has allowed whether it’s abuse of civil rights, abuse of individuals’ personal behaviors as in the Grindr case, whether it’s for large platforms to say, “Well, I know this scam artist is paying me to put up content that probably is ripping people off, but I’m going to use Section 230 as a way to prevent me from acting responsibly and actually taking down that content.” So if you don’t believe those things are happening, then that’s a position to have, again, respectfully, I would just fundamentally disagree with you.
Lapowsky: It’s not my position?
Emily, are there other questions? I thought we were gonna hear from a variety of questions. I’m happy to do this debate but I thought that?
There’s so much to comment on here. First, Lapowsky is asking a specific question that Warner either does not understand or does not want to answer. She’s pointing out, accurately, what 230 actually does and how it protects lots and lots of internet users and sites, beyond the “big” guys. And Warner is obsessing over some perceived problem that he fundamentally does not seem to understand. First of all, no large online platform wants scammers on their website. They don’t need to hide behind Section 230, because public pressure in the form of angry users, journalists exposing the bad behavior, and just common sense has every major online site seeking to take down scams.
Warner’s bill doesn’t do anything to help in that situation other than make sure that if a smaller platform fucks up and misses a scammer, then suddenly they’ll face crippling liability. The big platforms — that Warner is so sure are doing nothing at all — have massive trust and safety operations on the scale that no other site could possibly match. And they’re going to miss stuff. You know why? Because that’s the nature of large numbers. You’re going to get stuff wrong.
As for the Grindr case, that actually proves the opposite point. The reason the Grindr case was a problem was not that Grindr fucked up, but that law enforcement ignored Matthew Herrick’s complaint against his vengeful ex for too long. And eventually they got it right and arrested his ex who had abused Grindr to harass Herrick. Making Grindr liable doesn’t fix law enforcement’s failures. It doesn’t fix anything. All it does is make sure that many sites will be much more aggressive in stifling all sorts of good uses of their platform to make sure they don’t miss the rare abusive uses. This is fundamentally why 230 is so important. It creates the framework that enables nearly every platform to work to minimize the mistakes without fearing what happens if they get it wrong (exactly as Lapowsky pointed out, and which Warner refuses to address).
At this point, Lapowsky again tries to explain in more detail what she’s asking, and a clearly pissed off Warner cuts her off, ignores her and turns to the other reporter, Birnbaum, to ask if she has any other questions for him, snottily noting that he expected questions from listeners. Lapowsky tries again, pointing out that she thinks it’s important to hear Warner respond to the actual criticisms of his bill (rather than just repeating his fantasy vision of what is happening and what his bill does).
Finally, Lapowsky is able to raise one of the key problems we raised in our article: that the SAFE TECH Act, by wiping out 230 protections for any content for which money exchanges hands, is way too broad and would remove 230 for things like web hosting or any kind of advertising. Warner goes on a long rambling rant about how he thinks this should be debated around conference tables as they “iterate,” but then also says that the companies should be forced to come to hearings to defend their content moderation practices. Then, rather than actually responding to the point that the language is incredibly broad, he immediately focuses in on one extreme case, the Armslist case, and demands to know Lapowsky’s view on what should happen with that site.
But… notice that he never actually answers her question about the incredibly broad language in the bill. It’s incredibly ridiculous to focus on an extreme outlier to defend language that would basically impact every website out there by removing any 230 protections for web hosts. This is the worst kind of political grandstanding. Take one extreme example, and push for a law that will impact everyone, and if anyone calls you on the broad reach, just keep pointing at that extreme example. It’s disgusting.
At the end, Warner states that he’s open to talking to smaller platforms, which is kind of laughable, considering that his staffers have been going around trashing and lying about people like myself that have pointed out the problems with his bill.
Either way, the interview makes clear that Warner does not understand how content moderation works, or what his bill actually does. Clearly, he’s upset about a few extreme cases, but he doesn’t seem to recognize that in targeting what he believes are two bad court rulings, he would completely upend how every other website works. And when pushed on that, he seems to get angry about it. That’s not a good way for legislation to be made.
Filed Under: 1st amendment, big tech, civil rights, content moderation, emily birnbaum, free speech, intermediary liability, issie lapowsky, mark warner, safe tech act, scams, section 230