Wednesday’s congressional hearings on Section 230 — the legislation passed 24 years ago that allows social-media firms to profit from their users’ content without being held responsible for that content — could be a turning point for tech bosses.
Attempts to repeal the law by executive order could force tech firms to reform (by implementing truly neutral editorial standards), or cause the industry to diversify and open up to new players (once firms are upfront about their editorial biases).
So far, tech platforms have been treated almost like cellphone networks: they provide the technology for people to communicate, but just like a cellular network, cannot be expected to screen every message before it is sent. Unlike a cellphone network, of course, tech firms directly profit from the content they host.
But recently, lawmakers from both parties have been asking if tech execs should be treated like newspaper editors in the eyes of the law, making them liable for things like libel, defamation, and slander on their platforms.
More and more, social-media platforms look like they are media outlets that differ from their traditional competitors only in so far as they don’t have a wage bill for professional journalists, but rather have huge op-ed and letters sections, in the form of users’ posts.
Big Tech may lack professional journalists, but more than makes up for it with an editorial line, and editorial boards that can refuse column inches to those they disagree with (like those who published the Hunter Biden story earlier this month).
It is about time that those firms were treated like the media outlets they have become, as well as being upfront about their political orientations and editorial biases.
Big Tech is fast becoming this decade’s bad guy, like tobacco, oil and pharma before it. This drift is all the more embarrassing because Tech was meant to innovate against the old order, rather than become part of it.
Sometimes success is its own punishment, stretching the credibility of even the most resilient brands. From 2005 to 2018, the five biggest technology firms in the United States spent more than half a billion dollars lobbying Congress — hardly the behavior of do-gooder startups. And even at that spending level, legislators are publicly unhappy, as acknowledged in Wednesday’s testimony.
So what’s the solution? Tech firms’ veneer of neutrality — that they could not be held responsible for their content because they had no role in that content — has well and truly crumbled.
Big Tech’s editorializing of content is, if anything, more extensive and sophisticated than that of a traditional news outlet. Human content reviewers, senior oversight executives, and algorithms all control what we see on our timelines.
Scaling traditional editorial methods to Big Tech is unnecessary: Artificial intelligence and language processing can do the majority of the work, as it already does with certain types of content (like pornography or calls to self-harm).
Users can also report inappropriate content and be part of the solution — if Big Tech levels with us.
Those users hand over their most intimate data and are happy for these firms to mine and profit from it. They now want that transparency to be reciprocated. Users have questions about tech’s editorial policies, content quality, and commitment to neutrality.
We may not like some of the answers. And that’s OK — as long as they are honest with us and we can then make informed decisions.
Having been a Silicon Valley insider for two decades, I’ve seen the industry mature — and I see the next-generation social-media firms coming to fruition. Those firms, like their current competitors, will be just as important a part of the news cycle as their traditional counterparts, as consumers enjoy different touchpoints for their news.
Part of the solution may be empowered users understanding what each tech firm’s policies really are, and sometimes choosing to switch providers — just as they might with a cellphone network or a newspaper.
As of 2018, the United States had 1,279 daily newspapers. Soon we may have just as many social media platforms. That might be good for the industry, and good for our politics.
Ronjini Joshua is a California-based author, speaker, and founder of The Silver Telegram, a tech-focused communications firm.