Thinking through a social-contract framework for reforming Section 230

Mary Anne Franks. Photo (cc) 2014 by the Internet Education Foundation.

The Lawfare podcasts are doing an excellent job of making sense of complicated media-technical issues. Last week I recommended a discussion of Australia’s new law mandating that Facebook and Google pay for news. Today I want to tell you about an interview with Mary Anne Franks, a law professor at the University of Miami, who is calling for the reform of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

The host, Alan Rozenshtein, guides Franks through a paper she’s written titled “Section 230 and the Anti-Social Contract,” which, as he points out, is short and highly readable. Franks’ overriding argument is that Section 230 — which protects internet services, including platform companies such as Facebook and Twitter, from being sued for what their users post — is a way of entrenching the traditional white male power structure.

That might strike you as a bit much, and, as you’ll hear, Rozenshtein challenges her on it, pointing out that some members of disenfranchised communities have been adamant about retaining Section 230 in order to protect their free-speech rights. Nevertheless, her thesis is elegant, encompassing everyone from Thomas Jefferson to John Perry Barlow, the author of the 1996 document “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace,” of which she takes a dim view. Franks writes:

Section 230 serves as an anti-social contract, replicating and perpetuating long-standing inequalities of gender, race, and class. The power that tech platforms have over individuals can be legitimized only by rejecting the fraudulent contract of Section 230 and instituting principles of consent, reciprocity, and collective responsibility.

So what is to be done? Franks pushes back on Rozenshtein’s suggestion that Section 230 reform has attracted bipartisan support. Republicans such as Donald Trump and Sen. Josh Hawley, she notes, are talking about changes that would force the platforms to publish content whether they want to or not — a nonstarter, since that would be a violation of the First Amendment.

Democrats, on the other hand, are seeking to find ways of limiting the Section 230 protections that the platform companies now enjoy without tearing down the entire law. Again, she writes:

Specifically, a true social contract would require tech platforms to offer transparent and comprehensive information about their products so that individuals can make informed choices about whether to use them. It would also require tech companies to be held accountable for foreseeable harms arising from the use of their platforms and services, instead of being granted preemptive immunity for ignoring or profiting from those harms. Online intermediaries must be held to similar standards as other private businesses, including duty of care and other collective responsibility principles.

Putting a little more meat on the bones, Franks adds that Section 230 should be reformed so as to “deny immunity to any online intermediary that exhibits deliberate indifference to harmful conduct.”

Today’s New York Times offers some details as to what that might look like:

One bill introduced last month would strip the protections from content the companies are paid to distribute, like ads, among other categories. A different proposal, expected to be reintroduced from the last congressional session, would allow people to sue when a platform amplified content linked to terrorism. And another that is likely to return would exempt content from the law only when a platform failed to follow a court’s order to take it down.

Since its passage in 1996, Section 230 has been an incredible boon to any internet publisher who opens its gates to third-party content. They’re under no obligation to take down material that is libelous or threatening. Quite the contrary — they can make money from it.

This is hardly what the First Amendment envisioned, since publishers in other spheres are legally responsible for every bit of content they put before their audiences, up to and including advertisements and letters to the editor. The internet as we know it would be an impossibility if Section 230 didn’t exist in some form. But it may be time to rein it in, and Franks has put forth a valuable framework for how we might think about that.

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