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Jonathan Burton

Oct. 17, 2020, 8:53 a.m. EDT

Jim Steyer: Only a breakup of Facebook and controls on social media can reduce disinformation and lies on the internet

Neither Big Tech’s response nor the law have been strong enough to shield users from harm, says the founder of Common Sense Media

By Jonathan Burton, MarketWatch

AFP/Getty Images

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 (NAS:FB)   and its subsidiary Instagram for the sharpest condemnation, though Steyer also labels Alphabet’s (NAS:GOOGL)  YouTube, Twitter (NYS:TWTR)  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 (NYS:CRM)  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.

Chronicle Prism

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.

‘The gun industry is the only other industry in America with broad legal immunity other than the tech industry.’

They are publishers. The tech industry has this pathetic defense of Section 230. Platform companies like Facebook have insisted that if they have to play by the same rules as publishers, individuals’ right to free speech will vanish. That’s baloney. Treating Facebook and Instagram and others as publishers does not undermine the First Amendment. On the contrary, publishers have flourished under the First Amendment. And by the way, the free press was doing just fine until Facebook came along.

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 Facebook and Instagram and some of the other platforms that are not held accountable for the content of their platforms. People on both sides of the aisle are weighing in on this issue. Out of that will come substantive change, and 2021 is going to be a hugely important year for this.

‘Facebook and other social media platforms are on the wrong side of history.’

MarketWatch: Still, Facebook and other social media companies say they do their best to police their platforms, even though they don’t consider themselves publishers. You obviously see it differently.

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. 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.

Facebook and other social media platforms are on the wrong side of history. Unless they change course they are going to be forever excoriated for being on the wrong side of history.

Here’s the Facebook strategy: deny, deflect, distract. They do tiny measures but they are fundamentally continuing to undermine many of our important democratic norms and institutions, and they are allowing their platform to be used to spread disinformation, misinformation, outright lies and political falsehoods, and they are damaging our society.

They’re taking the easier path to profits. Facebook makes tons of money with promoting white supremacy, racist and anti-Semitic posts and allowing Russian bots to buy ads on their platform. It’s all about the money. It’s putting profits over principles and people. That’s what’s going on and they should be held accountable.

Read: Facebook bans posts that deny or distort Holocaust

Also: YouTube cracks down on QAnon conspiracy videos

MarketWatch: Should Big Tech be broken up?

Steyer: Yes. But it’s going to take federal regulation. It’s never going to be done voluntarily. The House Antitrust Report laid out a variety of antitrust concerns that differ by platform, and — more likely if you have a different Congress and different leadership — it is possible some things from that could be pulled out into legislation. Right now, it is mostly in the hands of enforcers, the Federal Trade Commission, the Department of Justice and state attorneys general.

‘Facebook should be forced to divest itself of Instagram and WhatsApp.’

I believe they can address some concerns under current law. For example, Facebook should be forced to divest itself of Instagram and WhatsApp. It’s anti-competitive. State attorneys general are going to bring a case next year against Facebook. The harm is clear. They’ve knocked out competitors to the market.

But it's not just Facebook that knocks out competitors. Regulators need to take a long, hard look at how big these companies have gotten and how many hundreds of other companies and competitors they have swallowed up. Another thing regulators can and should do is very carefully monitor any new acquisitions and be much more willing to say no. If regulators aren't willing to stand up to the tech companies, the tech companies will feel even more emboldened.  

For example, the Stop Hate for Profit campaign did a month-long Facebook advertiser boycott last July. Facebook basically said, you have to come back to us because we’re the only game in town. That wouldn’t be true if they were forced to divest Instagram and WhatsApp. Facebook is the biggest offender and the biggest player. But all of the tech industry needs to own this issue.

Jim Steyer is founder and CEO of Common Sense Media, the U.S.’s largest kids media and child advocacy organization. Steyer is the author of “Which Side of History?: How Technology is Reshaping Democracy and Our Lives.” (Chronicle Prism, 2020).

Read: Congress should consider breaking up Big Tech and limiting acquisitions, House report says

Also read: EU ‘hit list’ would reportedly impose tougher rules on big tech companies

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