Really, Cory? Then how the hell did we get to now?
“One of the reasons Hamilton found the word democracy so offensive was because he realized that the vast majority of American citizens had not the dimmest understanding of what he was talking about.” – Joseph Ellis –
Proving that it is easier to be a futurist than a historian, Cory Doctorow contributed a bit of soothsaying to a New York Timesseries the editors describe as follows:
… science fiction authors, futurists, philosophers and scientists write Op-Eds that they imagine we might read 10, 20 or even 100 years from now.
So, Doctorow projected himself ten years into the future, gazed back at the present, and decided that the heedless error we are making is not ignoring climate change or precipitating a completely avoidable war with Iran or even committing mass child abuse at the southern border. No, what Doctorow considers the potential misstep of the moment could be a decision to amend the policy of zero-liability for web platforms. That will be the decision we will regret ten years from now: telling internet companies that they may no longer give people the finger, even when they are directly responsible for injury. He writes …
“Bit by bit, the legal immunity of the platforms was eroded — from the judges who put Facebook on the line for the platform’s inaction during the Provo Uprising to the lawmakers who amended section 230 of the Communications Decency Act in a bid to get Twitter to clean up its Nazi problem.”
The only point on which Doctorow and I might agree is that the reaction against Big Tech—including the chatter about regulation and possibly amending the liability shield in Section 230—is that lawmakers, the press, and the public may be responding to the wrong stories. The efficacy with which Facebook removes unpalatable content is not the major issue. For one thing, they apparently already filter out so much garbage we never see that some of the moderators who dosee it have suffered from PTSD. Additionally, I would agree with Doctorow that so long as these platforms are used, a certain amount of ugly is going to persist, and we are going to have to learn to deal with that as a society.
But the first order of business in addressing the immunity paradigm for websites is actually fairly low-hanging fruit from a statutory perspective. As discussed in this post, there are websites that trade in material that, in any other context, would be sued out of existence, yet remain shielded for no reason other than the fact that they operate online. Sites that purposely host material that is libelous, defamatory, inciting violence, vengeful, infringing, etc. is not comparable to Facebook and Twitter stumbling in their efforts to maintain civil online communities. And Doctorow is being ridiculous when he lumps it all into one regulatory narrative.
Individuals and businesses who are injured online through conduct that is unquestionably illegal in real space should not be left to crash into the Section 230 wall when pursuing their legal rights to relief. It would be a major step in the right direction, and relatively easy legislative work, to make clear that websites that intentionally trade in material, which would ordinarily be actionable, no longer enjoy automatic immunity from litigation. Done. No draconian censorship needed, as Doctorow seems to imply.
Why Not Tweak the Experiment?
Meanwhile, Doctorow can hardly claim that the laissez-faire approach to the internet has produced many of the benefits he seems to think will be lost if we revise our policies. As I say, it is easier to be a futurist than a historian, and he seems to have forgotten history when he writes, “Democracies aren’t strengthened when a professional class gets to tell us what our opinions are allowed to be.”
Perhaps not what our opinions are allowed to be, but that’s Cory being Cory—sowing fear of censorship rather than considering the more subtle effect the internet has on the valueof opinion-making. It is not merely chance that the rapid expansion of “internet culture” coincided with the erosion of trust in professionals (i.e. experts), who have some damn good reasons to recommend what our opinions oughtto be on a number of important topics. The aforementioned shrugging at climate change comes to mind.
The democratization of opinion-making, leading to the inevitable folly that all opinions have equal value, may be seen by historians as a major catalyst to explain how the putative leader of all democratic republics, the United States, managed to achieve its present state of freefall on such a wide range of policies. At no time in living memory has the federal government been manned by such a large group of temp-job hacks without a single credential to recommend them for the departments they run.
The most powerful and extensive military force in the world has not had a legitimate Secretary of Defense since the day seven months ago that one of the most qualified commanders we have resigned because he considered the administration’s policy too incoherent to follow. And whether they will admit it publicly or not, every serious Republican on the Hill paled at the news of Mattis’s departure but would not say so for fear of being instantaneously thrashed on Twitter by mobs of citizens who haven’t got a clue what they’re talking about. If the free-for-all internet is so good for society, Cory, how and the hell did we get to now?
I know what Doctorow and his friends like to say. Don’t blame the internet for the degradation of statesmanship, intelligence, common sense, and decency. But why not? The relatively novel introduction of social media, adding an unprecedented scope of direct democracy into the process, has been an experiment. It is neither logical to assume, nor evident to observe, that the experiment has yielded only positive results. So, we should not be afraid to adjust the conditions of the experiment. I can certainly imagine looking back ten years from today and regretting plenty of policy decisions, but I don’t think holding internet companies responsible for their actions is going to be on that list.
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