“It is easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled” is an aphorism usually attributed to Mark Twain (Snopes.com).
Assuming that Twain is correct when he points out that it is difficult to convince people that they have been the victim of a lie because no one enjoys looking like a fool, leads me to an interesting article, “Fake News”, in The Economist (June 6-12, pp 49-51), which describes the need for Internet regulation and some of the ways the Internet is regulated in the US (there really is no comprehensive UN or global plan for all facets of Internet governance, — that’s another column but if you just can’t wait here’s a snippet:
“Media, freedom of expression and freedom of information have been long recognized as principles of internet governance, ” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internet_governance)
While freedom of expression, whether it is the freedom of speech, or of the press is a hallowed American concept embodied in the First Amendment to the Constitution. The problem arises because the Internet is the champion spreader of information as well as disinformation or, as it is commonly called, “fake news”.
Most websites that provide information also allow users to post comments and responses to those comments and so on and so forth. When these comments are published on the Internet they can be hurtful and cause harm not only to the person to which they are directed but also to the provider — in this case, the website.
The example used by the Economist was President Trump’s recent tweet, “There is no way (ZERO!) that mail-in ballots will be anything less than substantially fraudulent…” causing Twitter to flag the tweet as “unsubstantiated”. Whether or not Twitter was being cute about the use of the word “substantial” is not for me to say but the President’s response was not less than unsubstantial; feeling his right to free speech violated, he threatened to revoke Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act which basically protects media like the Internet and Phone networks from libel lawsuits due to the content they publish. The Electronic Freedom Foundation (no friend to large corporations) has said: “This legal and policy framework described in Section 230 has allowed for YouTube and Vimeo users to upload their own videos, Amazon and Yelp to offer countless user reviews, Craigslist to host classified ads, and Facebook and Twitter to offer social networking to hundreds of millions of Internet users. Some economists have opined that this protection from lawsuits against corporations like these due to the rants of their users has been a boon to our national economy.”
WHAT TO DO
Their point being: to remove or revoke Section 230 would be a very huge mistake and it would follow that if Trump could revoke it, in the long run it would backfire.
There are, of course exceptions to this protection such as sites that promote sex-trafficing.
Trump has argued that posted content should not be protected unless they are “politically neutral”, which as you might suspect, is substantially difficult to prove. Nonetheless, it is surprising to observe Free-Speech Advocates on the Left in bed with the President on the Right.
So what is a Moderator of posts on a site to do? They are between a rock and another rock. If they fact-check and remove obvious falsehoods are they stifling freedom of speech, sanctified in the First Amendment to the Constitution?
If 230 is revoked and they can be sued, will they conveniently overlook misinformation for fear of a lawsuit and their bottom line?
Will that harm their corporate mage? Can the website even begin to vet the comments of a company like Facebook with over 2.6 billion users?
THE BIGGER CONFLICT
To be fair, Facebook is currently making efforts to beef up their fact-checking staff as well as to develop artificially intelligent software to ease and eventually replace the humans.
“The bigger conflict here is between the ideas of free speech and online harm,” says Carl Miller, a researcher at the UK think tank Demos.
You have Trump’s home base that will continue to underline the importance of free speech.
And generally those on the left – and the tech giants – will emphasise the threat of online harm.” (https://www.wired.co.uk/article/donald-trump-twitter)
In addition to the tradeoff between Privacy and Security, the Internet has evolved to include tradeoffs between Freedom of Information vs online harm (one aspect of Security for the User).
Like all man-made systems, technology will always be imperfect; the best we can hope for is to learn how to learn from experience.
Dr. Stewart A. Denenberg is an emeritus professor of computer science at Plattsburgh State, retiring recently after 30 years there. Before that, he worked as a technical writer, programmer and consultant to the U.S. Navy and private Industry. Send comments and suggestions to his blog at www.tec-soc.blogspot.com, where there is additional text and links. He can also be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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