By Jonathan Burton, MarketWatch
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 Facebook /zigman2/quotes/205064656/composite FB +2.02% and its subsidiary Instagram for the sharpest condemnation, though Steyer also labels Alphabet’s /zigman2/quotes/202490156/composite GOOGL +0.71% YouTube, Twitter /zigman2/quotes/203180645/composite TWTR +0.79% and other platforms as super-spreaders of the disinformation, misinformation and mistrust that he believes plagues and preys on American minds, young and old.
The founder of the media and child advocacy organization Common Sense Media, Steyer has a long history with Facebook and social media firms, on the one hand engaging with them to convince them to self-police what children especially see when they click on the app and to protect all users’ digital privacy — and on the other pressing elected representatives to put these protections into law.
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 Facebook, regulate Big Tech and in particular to modify a controversial federal rule that allows social media companies to moderate the content on their sites but also permits them to dodge legal liability for what appears (with few exceptions) — unlike the traditional media of print, television and radio.
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 /zigman2/quotes/200515854/composite CRM +2.80% Marc Benioff, politician Michael Bloomberg and comedian Sacha Baron Cohen . The resulting anthology, “Which Side of History: How Technology Is Reshaping Democracy and Our Lives,” 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 and what appears on their platforms, and tells why he expects big changes for Big Tech — especially Facebook — in 2021.
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 Facebook” in 2012. That was way ahead of its time about the impact of Facebook and other social media platforms on the social, emotional and cognitive development of our children. I raised issues around privacy and the impact of Facebook, Instagram and other tech platforms on how our kids were growing up and how they were being impacted in their daily lives, whether it was their self-esteem, their attention spans, their ability to concentrate, and other aspects of their identity. Eight years later these issues are front and center.
MarketWatch: You’re adamant that social media companies, especially Facebook, should take responsibility for what appears on their platforms. But in fact they are not obligated to do so, protected by U.S. law.
Steyer: Section 230 is the section of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 that basically has given the big tech platforms blanket immunity . 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 Facebook and Instagram and YouTube and others that have then published inappropriate and offensive content.