The Complex Debate Over Silicon Valley’s Embrace of Content Moderation

The existential query that each massive tech platform from Twitter to Google to Facebook has to wrestle with is similar: How accountable ought to it act for the content material that individuals submit?

The reply that Silicon Valley has give you for many years is: Less is extra. But now, as protests of police brutality proceed throughout the nation, many within the tech trade are questioning the knowledge of letting all flowers bloom on-line.

After years of leaving President Trump’s tweets alone, Twitter has taken a extra aggressive strategy in current days, in a number of circumstances including truth checks and marks indicating the president’s tweets have been deceptive or glorified violence. Many Facebook workers need their firm to do the identical, although the chief govt, Mark Zuckerberg, mentioned he was in opposition to it. And Snapchat mentioned on Wednesday that it had stopped selling Mr. Trump’s content material on its foremost Discover web page.

In the midst of this notable shift, some civil libertarians are elevating a query in an already sophisticated debate: Any transfer to reasonable content material extra proactively may ultimately be used in opposition to speech liked by the individuals now calling for intervention.

“It comes from this drive to be protected — this belief that it’s a platform’s role to protect us from that which may harm or offend us,” mentioned Suzanne Nossel, the top of PEN America, a free-speech advocacy group. “And if that means granting them greater authority, then that’s worth it if that means protecting people,” she added, summarizing the argument. “But people are losing sight of the risk.”

Civil libertarians warning that including warning labels or further context to posts raises a spread of points — points that tech corporations till just lately had wished to keep away from. New guidelines typically backfire. Fact checks and context, regardless of how sober or correct they’re, may be perceived as politically biased. More proactive moderation by the platforms may threaten their particular protected authorized standing. And intervention goes in opposition to the apolitical self-image that some within the tech world have.

But after years of shrugging off issues that content material on social media platforms results in harassment and violence, many in Silicon Valley seem prepared to just accept the dangers related to shutting down unhealthy habits — even from world leaders.

“Our intention is to connect the dots of conflicting statements and show the information in dispute so people can judge for themselves,” Twitter’s chief govt, Jack Dorsey, wrote.

A group of early Facebook employees wrote a letter on Wednesday denouncing Mr. Zuckerberg’s decision not to act on Mr. Trump’s content. “Fact-checking is not censorship. Labeling a call to violence is not authoritarianism,” they wrote, adding: “Facebook isn’t neutral, and it never has been.”

Ellen Pao, once the head of Reddit, the freewheeling message board, publicly rebuked her former company. She said it was hypocritical for Reddit’s leader to signal support for the Black Lives Matter movement, as he recently did in a memo, since he had left up the main Trump fan page, The_Donald, where inflammatory memes often circulate.

“You should have shut down the_donald instead of amplifying it and its hate, racism, and violence,” Ms. Pao wrote on Twitter. “So much of what is happening now lies at your feet. You don’t get to say BLM when reddit nurtures and monetizes white supremacy and hate all day long.”

A hands-off approach by the companies has allowed harassment and abuse to proliferate online, Lee Bollinger, the president of Columbia University and a First Amendment scholar, said last week. So now the companies, he said, have to grapple with how to moderate content and take more responsibility, without losing their legal protections.

“These platforms have achieved incredible power and influence,” Mr. Bollinger said, adding that moderation was a necessary response. “There’s a greater risk to American democracy in allowing unbridled speech on these private platforms.”

Section 230 of the federal Communications Decency Act, passed in 1996, shields tech platforms from being held liable for the third-party content that circulates on them. But taking a firmer hand to what appears on their platforms could endanger that protection, most of all, for political reasons.

One of the few things that Democrats and Republicans in Washington agree on is that changes to Section 230 are on the table. Mr. Trump issued an executive order calling for changes to it after Twitter added labels to some of his tweets. Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, has also called for changes to Section 230.

“You repeal this and then we’re in a different world,” said Josh Blackman, a constitutional law professor at the South Texas College of Law Houston. “Once you repeal Section 230, you’re now left with 51 imperfect solutions.”

The circumstances around fact checks and added context can quickly turn political, the free-speech activists said. Which tweets should be fact-checked? Who does that fact-checking? Which get added context? What is the context that’s added? And once you have a full team doing fact-checking and adding context, what makes that different from a newsroom?

“The idea that you would delegate to a Silicon Valley board room or a bunch of content moderators at the equivalent of a customer service center the power to arbitrate our landscape of speech is very worrying,” Ms. Nossel said.

There has long been a philosophical rationale for the hands-off approach still embraced by Mr. Zuckerberg. Many in tech, especially the early creators of the social media sites, embraced a near-absolutist approach to free speech. Perhaps because they knew the power of what they were building, they did not trust themselves to decide what should go on it.

Of course, the companies already do moderate to some extent. They block nudity and remove child pornography. They work to limit doxxing — when someone’s phone number and address is shared without consent. And promoting violence is out of bounds.

“What does and does not incite violence is often in the eyes of the reader, and historically it has been used to silence progressive antiracist protest leaders,” said Nadine Strossen, a former head of the American Civil Liberties Union and an emerita law professor at New York University.

“I looked at Twitter’s definition of inciting violence, and it was something like it could risk creating violence,” she added. “Oh? Well, I think that covers a lot of speech, including antigovernment demonstrators.”

Corynne McSherry, the legal director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an organization that defends free speech online, said people could be worried about Mr. Trump’s executive order targeting Twitter “without celebrating Twitter’s choices here.”

“I’m worried about both,” she said.

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