When the internet first appeared several decades ago, its potential was hailed as almost infinite. Here was a vehicle through which people could exchange ideas, information and content at a peer-to-peer level, without intermediation or outside control. It had the potential to be the culmination of civilization’s centuries-long march toward liberalism — the uninhibited exchange of ideas among a society of equals, under the stewardship of companies that connected us and promised to “do no evil.” It was the idyllic democracy of Athens powered by a technological revolution.
To repeat this vision today is to expose it for the fairy tale that it was. The internet has become a curated experience, its content managed explicitly and unashamedly by a handful of companies that use it to learn about you and disable their rivals — be they newspapers, performing artists, retail establishments, or whomever else — in the process. And the license that was granted to them — most important, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, the provision that gives Facebook and Google minimal obligations to monitor what happens on their network — has turned into a profound social nightmare, as these companies enable the distortion of democracy, perpetuation of hateful propaganda, the theft of intellectual property, racism and anti-Semitism, and the invasion if not the end of personal privacy, all of which redound to the profitability of a few monopolistic giants. And like Captain Renault in “Casablanca,” they are “Shocked!” when what goes on under their auspices is exposed.
There’s a simple answer to this profound challenge — make these companies responsible for what takes place on their networks. It will place a burden on them, that’s right, but these companies are wearing big boy pants — Google’s Alphabet and Facebook are the fourth and sixth most valuable companies in America. If ExxonMobil or JPMorgan were perpetuating this garbage, we wouldn’t think twice about making them responsible for their mess, whether it was oil spills or financial abuse. Why hesitate when the damage being done by the digital monopolists to our political system and social coherence is evident daily?
The answer is, at least in part, because they are still hiding behind the myth of uninhibited peer-to-peer interaction that allowed them to gain their chokeholds in the first place. But anyone who has watched malevolent actors pump distorting propaganda into our elections or seen the Kim Dotcoms of the world operate mass offshore movie and music pirate schemes knows better — the internet needs real accountability.
And perhaps it’s coming. Here’s something you might have missed in the cacophony of daily news. The Department of Justice has decided to take aggressive action against telecom providers that let “robocallers” use their networks. Aside from being long-overdue, this decision establishes an important principle — that companies are responsible for evident abuse of their networks and can’t hide behind a fog of “willful blindness” by ignoring blatant wrongdoing on their platforms.
Yes, Amen — it’s about time, but consider the implications of this decision. If the phone provider has to act to stop robocallers, then why not require the big tech platforms to spot troll scams, hate speech, pirated works, or other abuses, and take action against them? No more fairy tale about the free exchange of ideas or Athens born anew.
Support for this position is growing fast. No less a personage than Reed Hundt, the FCC chair who presided over the creation of Section 230 in the first place, now admits “we were naive” and the law must change. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tried (but failed) to strip tech’s “safe harbor” from the USMCA trade agreement; Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, has made clear he supports repeal as well. Sen. Thom Tillis, R-North Carolina, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Intellectual property, argues that the current system hasn’t “stood the test of time,” while Democrat Rep. Jan Schakowski, D-Illinois, has urged a “new look” at the law. Perhaps Microsoft President Brad Smith said it best: “Section 230 had a place and time, but that time is now over.”
Perhaps that time really is over. There is bipartisan, near-unanimity around the principle that the online network giants must take responsibility to clean up the hate speech, election manipulation, piracy of music and video, and dissembling propaganda their networks carry. And if we can summon the political will to shut down robocallers, then surely we can use the identical logic to protect our democracy and build an internet that allows the free exchange of ideas, content, and information that has been so sadly left behind.