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Online Speech Shield Under Fire        05/08 07:45

   

   WASHINGTON (AP) -- Lurking beneath Facebook's decision on whether to 
continue Donald Trump's suspension from its platform is a far more complex and 
consequential question: Do the protections carved out for companies when the 
internet was in its infancy 25 years ago make sense when some of them have 
become global powerhouses with almost unlimited reach?

   The companies have provided a powerful megaphone for Trump, other world 
leaders and billions of users to air their grievances, even ones that are false 
or damaging to someone's reputation, knowing that the platforms themselves were 
shielded from liability for content posted by users.

   Now that shield is getting a critical look in the current climate of 
hostility toward Big Tech and the social environment of political polarization, 
hate speech and violence against minorities.

   The debate is starting to take root in Congress, and the action this week by 
Facebook's quasi-independent oversight board upholding the company's suspension 
of Trump's accounts could add momentum to that legislative effort.

   Under the 1996 Communications Decency Act, digital platform companies have 
legal protection both for content they carry and for removing postings they 
deem offensive. The shelter from lawsuits and prosecution applies to social 
media posts, uploaded videos, user reviews of restaurants or doctors, 
classified ads --- or the underworld of thousands of websites that profit from 
false and defamatory information on individuals.

   Section 230 of the law, which outlines the shield, was enacted when many of 
the most powerful social media companies didn't even exist. It allowed 
companies like Facebook, Twitter and Google to grow into the behemoths they are 
today.

   Republicans accuse the social media platforms of suppressing conservative 
voices and giving a stage to foreign leaders branded as dictators, while Trump 
is barred. Democrats and civil rights groups decry the digital presence of 
far-right extremists and pin blame on the platforms for disseminating hate 
speech and stoking extremist violence.

   "For too long, social media platforms have hidden behind Section 230 
protections to censor content that deviates from their beliefs," Sen. Roger 
Wicker of Mississippi, the senior Republican on the Senate Commerce Committee, 
has said.

   On this, Trump and President Joe Biden apparently agree. Trump, while 
president, called for the repeal of Section 230, branding it "a serious threat 
to our national security and election integrity." Biden said during his 
campaign that it "immediately should be revoked," though he hasn't spoken about 
the issue at length as president.

   Facebook, with a strong lobbying presence in Washington and a desire to have 
an input into any changes, has stepped out in favor of revisions to Section 
230. Congress should update the 1996 law "to make sure it's working as 
intended," CEO Mark Zuckerberg has said. And he's offered a specific 
suggestion: Congress could require internet platforms to gain legal protection 
only by proving that their systems for identifying illegal content are up to 
snuff.

   Some critics see a clever gambit in that, a requirement that could make it 
more difficult for smaller tech companies and startups to comply and would 
ultimately advantage Facebook over smaller competitors.

   Spokespeople for Twitter and Google declined to comment on the prospects for 
legislative action on Section 230 following the Facebook board ruling; a 
spokesperson for Menlo Park, California-based Facebook had no immediate comment.

   The decision announced by the Facebook oversight board upheld the suspension 
of Trump, an extremely rare move that was based on the company's conclusion 
that he incited violence leading to the deadly Jan. 6 Capitol riot. But the 
overseers told Facebook to specify how long the suspension would last, saying 
its "indefinite" ban on the former president was unreasonable. The ruling, 
which gives Facebook six months to comply, effectively postpones any possible 
Trump reinstatement and puts the onus for that decision squarely back on the 
company.

   Trump was permanently banned after the riot from Twitter, his favored 
bullhorn. But it was Facebook that played an integral role in both of Trump's 
campaigns, not just as a way to speak to his more than 32 million followers but 
also as a fundraising juggernaut driving small-dollar contributions through 
highly targeted ads.

   Critics of Facebook generally saw the oversight board's ruling as positive. 
But some view the board as a distraction by Facebook to skirt its 
responsibility and to stave off action by Congress or the Biden administration. 
What must be addressed, critics insist, are the broader problems for society 
from the fearsome power, market dominance and underlying business model of 
Facebook and the other tech giants --- harvesting data from platform users and 
making it available to online advertisers so they can pinpoint consumers to 
target.

   That's where the debate over changes to Section 230 comes in, as a key area 
for new regulation of social media.

   Gautam Hans, a technology law and free-speech expert and professor at 
Vanderbilt University, said he finds the board to be "a bit of a sideshow from 
the larger policy and social questions that we have about these companies."

 
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