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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

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By Jonathan Burton, MarketWatch

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‘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

Jonathan Burton is a MarketWatch editor and personal-finance columnist. Follow him on Twitter @MKTWBurton.

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Jonathan Burton is the investing editor for MarketWatch and covers investing strategies and mutual fund-related news from San Francisco. He also writes the...

Jonathan Burton is the investing editor for MarketWatch and covers investing strategies and mutual fund-related news from San Francisco. He also writes the "Life Savings" column. Previously he held contributing editor positions at Bloomberg Personal Finance, Mutual Funds and Individual Investor magazines, and was a reporter with the Far Eastern Economic Review and Investor's Business Daily. He is also the author of two books on investing.

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