UPDATE: Jim Steyer: Only a breakup of Facebook and controls on social media can reduce disinformation and lies on the internet
By Jonathan Burton, MarketWatch
Neither Big Tech's response nor the law have been strong enough to shield users from harm, says the founder of Common Sense Media
To hear Jim Steyer tell it, the kids of America are not all right -- and the grown-ups aren't doing so great either.
Americans certainly have a lot to stress about nowadays: the coronavirus pandemic; political, social and racial division; a widening wealth gap; high unemployment and the absence of a new federal stimulus package are just some of people's pressing concerns.
Steyer has no doubt about one of the chief contributors to this dis-ease: social media and the big tech companies that provide it. He singles out
The founder of the media and child advocacy organization Common Sense Media, Steyer has a long history with
But neither Big Tech's response nor the law have been strong enough to shield users from harm, Steyer contends. Social media companies have consciously abdicated their responsibility for the social good in ways that are unconscionable, he charges, pointing to the barrage of misinformation and disinformation around the 2020 U.S. election as a prime example.
Steyer now is advocating for the government to break up
This obscure rule, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, has been around since 1996 but now is a heated election-year issue for both Republicans and Democrats, including President Donald Trump and former Vice-President Joe Biden -- albeit for different reasons. On Oct. 15, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai said his agency will "clarify ambiguities" in Section 230. Should Congress consider changing Section 230, it's likely that social media companies would become legally accountable for the content on their platforms, including hate speech, misinformation and disinformation.
While agreeing with the FCC that Section 230 should be clarified to require platforms to better moderate content, Steyer expressed doubt about the agency's motives. In an email, Steyer said that "the FCC does not have the authority that Chairman claims. This is particularly troubling because the Chairman has disclaimed the FCC's ability to provide more connectivity resources in the pandemic, weakened his agency's own privacy rules and enforcement capabilities, and otherwise pursued an anti-regulatory agenda. At best, there's a disconnect between where the FCC's priorities should be; at worst, the Chairman has decided to do an end around Congress."
Steyer asserted that Pai is acting "at the behest of President Trump, who wants to reform Section 230 but for the wrong reasons -- not to protect children and our democracy but to continue to avoid accountability for the content of his tweets."
Raising awareness of Section 230 and sounding an alarm about how social media companies do business motivated Steyer to solicit essays examining technology and its influence on how we live, with insights and criticism from some notable contributors including Salesforce's (CRM) Marc Benioff, politician Michael Bloomberg and comedian Sacha Baron Cohen (http://www.marketwatch.com/story/sacha-baron-cohen-calls-facebook-trumps-willing-accomplice-in-spreading-conspiracy-theories-2020-10-08). The resulting anthology, "Which Side of History: How Technology Is Reshaping Democracy and Our Lives," (https://bookshop.org/books/which-side-of-history-how-technology-is-reshaping-democracy-and-our-lives/9781797205168) was released earlier this week.
In this recent telephone interview, which has been edited for length and clarity, Steyer spells out his case for regulating social media companies (http://www.marketwatch.com/story/heres-where-biden-and-trump-stand-on-antitrust-social-media-and-other-tech-issues-2020-10-01) and what appears on their platforms, and tells why he expects big changes for Big Tech -- especially
MarketWatch: Why is your new book called "Which Side of History?"?
Steyer: We are at a critical crossroads where technology is shaping so much of our lives. I run the largest children's advocacy group in the United States and the largest tech advocacy group in the world, Common Sense Media. Technology is being used to sow mistrust and spread disinformation and misinformation. Tech platforms are being used to undermine our most democratic institutions, threatening some of the basic norms of free and open society and exacerbating the gap between rich and poor. Technology is everywhere but the big question is will it be used for good or for bad? This is an existential question for our nation and our world. That's why the book is called "Which Side of History? How Technology is Reshaping Democracy and Our Lives."
The last big book I wrote was "Talking Back to
MarketWatch: You're adamant that social media companies, especially
Steyer: Section 230 is the section of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 that basically has given the big tech platforms blanket immunity (https://www.lawfareblog.com/supreme-court-declines-review-section-230-for-now). The original purpose of Section 230 was to clean up the internet, not to facilitate people doing bad things on the internet. It's been used to provide blanket immunity for platforms like
They are publishers. The tech industry has this pathetic defense of Section 230. Platform companies like
Section 230 is like the self-protection that gun manufacturers extorted from Congress under the pretext of the Second Amendment. The gun industry is the only other industry in America with broad legal immunity other than the tech industry. The blanket immunity in Section 230 makes no sense. Congress never intended to give these platforms a free pass. That law needs to be fundamentally overhauled.
MarketWatch: How are you and other advocates challenging Big Tech's immunity claim?
Steyer: For the past two or three years I've been speaking to leading senators in Washington D.C. and at the state level in California about the fact that Section 230 is really bad for kids. Section 230 not only fails to protect kids from disturbing content, it also limits the effectiveness of other child-protection laws.
We introduced legislation in California this year to go after
Steyer: There is no question that they should be treated as publishers. It would be much better for our civic discourse and the norms of our democratic institutions (http://www.marketwatch.com/story/the-election-is-being-fought-on-social-media-amid-the-pandemic-11602529760). Section 230 has to be overhauled to make it relevant to the year 2020 and hold the tech platforms accountable. They've been hiding behind this sophomoric defense of free speech. Their rationale is ludicrous.
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October 17, 2020 08:53 ET (12:53 GMT)
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