A central feature of the mythology surrounding the internet is that it’s unique, neutral and passive. Even the most uneducated remarks about it showed the staying power of this fairy tale — for example, the late U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens’ claim it’s just a “series of tubes” through which things flow.
We now can see the flaws in this wishful thinking. There’s nothing unique, neutral, or passive about the internet today. It’s dominated by a handful of monopolies, led by Google and Facebook, that have twisted its promise to their own enrichment. We were assured the internet would be a freewheeling and open place to experience, learn and connect, but we’ve learned a harsh and different truth.
Most everything you see on the internet is shaped, controlled and tailored based on everything these invasive monopolies have learned from tracking you (the nice word is “curated”), right down to bogus political ads, hate speech and fake news. And while they hide behind the idea that they’re “neutral” and “passive,” Google and YouTube present ISIS recruitment videos and opioid mills while Facebook livestreams the Christchurch, New Zealand, massacre, because nobody holds them accountable.
But isn’t this just a sad and unavoidable downside to an otherwise unique and transformational technology? The answer is simply no. Nobody else in the economy or society gets away with this type of misconduct. Newspapers connect advertisers and content producers with their audiences and would never be allowed to spread fentanyl or child pornography like the platforms do. That kind of filth can’t be sent through the mails or over the airwaves. But the internet monopolies get away with it with impunity.
You would think a Congress that claims to be fed up with drugs, gun violence, sex slavery and the other social cancers we see on the news each day would put an end to this behavior. But not only have they refused to address this issue head-on, they have a long and disappointing history of letting it happen. In fact, there are laws that protect the content monopolies on this score.
The most significant of these is Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, and former Rep. Chris Cox, R-Calif., wrote in 1996. “CDA 230” gives the monopoly internet platforms like Google and Facebook almost complete immunity for what happens on their systems, no matter how unlawful, cruel or vile. Back in 1996, perhaps it was possible to believe that passive, neutral internet companies shouldn’t have to monitor how their networks were used and couldn’t afford to monitor traffic anyhow. But not today, when their algorithms shape everything we see online and they’re among the largest, richest corporations on the planet.
This issue is coming to a head in an interesting, unanticipated, and bipartisan way. That’s because there are some legislators and Trump administration trade officials who want the current ill-fitting “CDA 230” protections included in new trade deals.
But that would extend this unwarranted immunity to our trading partners and, even worse, it would tie Congress’s hands and undermine efforts to change and update U.S. law since the current obsolete version would be embedded in international treaties. That would be a huge step backward when efforts are underway to fix CDA 230 to better protect our elections, fight online radicalization, and make the internet work for everyone.
There are signs the problem might be addressed. House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Frank Pallone, D-New Jersey, and Ranking Minority Member Greg Walden, R-Oregon, recently called on U.S. Special Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer to keep CDA 230 provisions out of future trade deals. That’s a vital and rare bipartisan step forward.
So, somebody gets it. But not everyone. Yes, the internet has made remarkable contributions to our economy, society, and culture. But now that the dark side of the internet becomes clearer, the reticence of some legislators to address the flawed consequences of the laws that enable it is both conspicuous and sadly mistaken.
Legislators like Sen. Wyden, who were right when they championed the Internet’s growth, now have to recognize that the proliferation of toxic content online can no longer be tolerated. The internet giants haven’t cleaned up their acts and won’t do so until Congress tells them to.
It’s time for Sen. Wyden and his colleagues to support amendments to CDA 230 here at home and to quit calling for it to be exported to other countries and frozen in trade agreement amber. Senator Wyden was right when he helped make the internet an incredible element of progress. Now he should help curb its most vile excesses as well.