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The Twenty-Six Words That Created the Internet

21 August 2019

From The Wall Street Journal:

Americans are of two minds about the internet: They rely on it and fear it, they immerse themselves in it for hours and deplore its social consequences. Even some tech writers, people who a decade ago gushed about the web’s limitless possibilities for connectedness and free expression, now frequently sound like Gollum emoting about the Ring. It’s still their precious, but they hates it.

Jeff Kosseff’s “The Twenty-Six Words That Created the Internet” is in many ways the story of how and why this happened. The 26 words are these: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” They form Section 230 of the otherwise irrelevant Communications Decency Act, itself a part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Without them the internet would play a very different, and a much smaller, role in our lives.

Section 230 shields online platforms from legal liability for content generated by third-party users. Put simply: If you’re harassed by a Facebook user, or if your business is defamed by a Yelp reviewer, you might be able to sue the harasser or the reviewer, assuming you know his or her identity, but don’t bother suing Facebook or Yelp. They’re probably immune. That immunity is what enabled American tech firms to become far more than producers of content (the online versions of newspapers, say, or company websites) and to harness the energy and creativity of hundreds of millions of individual users. The most popular sites on the web—YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, eBay, Reddit, Wikipedia, Amazon—depend in part or in whole on user-generated content.

. . . .

The crucial moment came a few years later when someone—it was never clear who—posted an accusatory rant about the president of a brokerage firm to a message board hosted by the online service Prodigy. The firm, Stratton Oakmont, sued Prodigy for punitive damages. In 1995 a New York state judge ruled, in Stratton Oakmont v. Prodigy, in favor of the brokerage firm on the grounds that Prodigy, unlike its competitor CompuServe, exercised editorial control over user-generated content hosted on the site. Advancing technology was just then making content generated by users—comments, reviews, photos, videos—a more pronounced feature of online services. The Stratton Oakmont decision raised the possibility that aggrieved parties could sue the pixels off these companies if, like Prodigy, they moderated user content in any way.

That, in essence, is why Ron Wyden and Chris Cox, then members of the U.S. House, wrote Section 230. The results are everywhere around us. The U.S. was able to cultivate online companies in ways that other countries—even countries in the developed world—could not. Social-media companies, for example, could never have flourished in Canada or the European Union, where laws don’t shield online platforms from liability to the degree Section 230 does. In American law, Mr. Kosseff rightly says, “the Internet is different.”

. . . .

Mr. Kosseff acknowledges the dreadful problems caused by internet exceptionalism, but he still sides, reluctantly, with Section 230. “I remain convinced that the massive industry, social change, and free speech that we have seen since 1996 would not have been possible without Section 230.” Clearly there is truth in that, and in any case Section 230 isn’t going anywhere for the simple reason that Congress isn’t going to wreck the tech industry. But I’m not sure user-driven web platforms have brought about even the happy results Mr. Kosseff alludes to. “Massive” social change? Yes, if by that we mean the destruction of local newspapers, the mainstreaming of conspiracy theories and crank politics, and the cultivation of an entire class of educated people who think Twitter is reality. “Massive” free speech? They’ve given us more speech, for sure, but they’ve also enabled stupid and vicious verbiage to drown out reasonable speech and encouraged a younger generation to wonder what the point of free speech was in the first place.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Sorry if you encounter a paywall)

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8 Comments to “The Twenty-Six Words That Created the Internet”

  1. and the cultivation of an entire class of educated people who think Twitter is reality.

    Credentialed or educated?

    • This.

      The confusion between credentials and education is one of the most pernicious social fallacies going on right now.

      The fact is that there are people who are uncredentialed and uneducated, educated but uncredentialed, credentialed but uneducated, and educated and credentialed.

      The third kind is the most dangerous, because they think they know things but are actually utterly clueless.

  2. A scarily large percentage of people I’ve talked to think they’re the same thing…

  3. “Massive” free speech? They’ve given us more speech, for sure, but they’ve also enabled stupid and vicious verbiage to drown out reasonable speech and encouraged a younger generation to wonder what the point of free speech was in the first place.

    Translation: My free speech is good. Your free speech is bad.

    • The purpose of free speech is knowing what “the other side” is thinking before they rise up to chop of your head. If you’re not too stupid, you might even balance out eveybody’s interest just enough to keep your head.

      • I would note, however, that the right to speak does not include the right to a platform from which to speak (at other’s expense – you are welcome to pay for your own soapbox).

        But Section 230 does need an overhaul. At the very least, any site should be required to have a policy on what they will not permit on their platform, with such policy being clear and readily available to anyone visiting that platform. Failure to have such – or failure to evenly administer the policy – should then be valid grounds for lawsuit and award of damages to the person excluded from that site. (Explicitly so. I have no idea where the various lawsuits currently running for uneven policy enforcement by YouTube are going to end up. Rather depends on the judges involved.)

        • I would suggest that the first thing Section 230 needs is to be enforced. Going by the rules laid down in Stratton Oakmont, if an online service is ‘deplatforming’, ‘shadowbanning’, or outright kicking content providers off its service, it is acting as a moderator of user content and therefore is liable in essentially the same way as an ordinary publisher.

          For far too long, Facebook, Twitter, and the like have tried to eat their cake and have it. They want to control what people are allowed to say on their networks, but they also want the immunity from prosecution that the law specifically reserves for those who do not control what people are allowed to say.

          If these jokers want to retain that immunity, the only policy they are entitled to have is that they will not permit speech which is per se illegal. There should be no takedowns without a court order.

          If they don’t care about the immunity, they have to decide whether it’s cheaper for them to pay damages to pretty much everyone who feels like suing them, or to hire people to read absolutely everything that passes through their servers. Good luck with that.

          • Good first step, yes.
            Biggest problem in auditing is finding/gauging the baked-in bias in the algorithms. Adding a layer of software between humans and content doesn’t remove bias, it just hides it.

            Whether it is Google, Tweeter, Fox, or MSNBC, it is humans who decide what gets presented and how.

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