Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act is currently being called into question by lawmakers, and this raises red flags for both producers and consumers within the online realm.
Section 230 states “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.”
If the granting of this protection were to be removed, any online sharing site (ranging from food blogs to Facebook pages to search engines to simulation games) could be held accountable for the online activity of users and affiliates.
For example, the current questionable image from Jaimie Lee Curtis’ account would hold Instagram as liable for the contested offensive or artistic picture featured in the post.
And while Big Tech may be able to bulk up capacity to counter claims for such cases, social media startups and casual content creators better beware.
It is not a matter of whether online activity should be moderated, but rather who does the moderating. If Section 230 protections were to be removed, this would discourage the creation of new social networking sites and create a mandate for an online surveillance state.
So, since some political officials believe online service providers should be held liable for suggestions, search results, and social feeds, and given that hearings on the Hill have exposed an ineptitude for most things tech related, here is an illustration of how Section 230 plays out in an offline scenario.
Removing Section 230 Would Stifle Engagement
Let’s say you are hosting an event where people can come and gather and socialize. You can charge a fee for entry (like a paywall) or keep access free (like many social and search providers do).
Although the fee for entry may help with crowd management, it still doesn’t protect you fully from unscrupulous characters buying their way in, and having a free event doesn’t mean everyone automatically gets access.
For your event, you might require a dress code or have rules needing to be adhered to (representing Terms of Service agreements associated with some online sites).
Depending on how the event is going and growing, expectations may need to adjust over time and these adjustments should be made clear and concrete (an area that social media sites could do better at).
The event will only be an event if there are attendees, and the same is true with social networking sites and search engines. If no one is on them or uses them, they become obsolete (ahem, MySpace).
Over time, some events may change as interests change or even as the market ages—for instance, an exclusive party for college kids becomes a favored spot for 35-44-year-olds (ahem, Facebook).
People show up to your event and bring friends along, who then bring more friends. Now people are showing up to see who else is there or to simply show off, and some high-profile attendees attract even more traffic to your event.
The size and type of crowd also become of interest to sponsors and marketers who want to be featured at your event. Some sponsors are well received by guests, and others are not and you adjust your networks accordingly.
At the event, you can tell who is connected to whom and what their interests are—and it is in your best interest to ensure the event remains worthwhile.
You make recommendations and connections based on past experiences and forms of engagement for those in attendance—and sometimes this is great, and sometimes not.
For instance, let’s say you recommend a nearby café that happens to source from a harvester who, unbeknownst to you, engages in human rights abuses. Until you are aware, you continue to encourage traffic to the café thinking you are supporting a local business. Once you learn of the injustice, you react and rescind such recommendations, however, if someone at your event happens to recommend the café to another event goer, that is on them, not you. You are, however, concerned about the reputation of your event and the credibility of your connections, and so you monitor the sharing of information when aware and applicable.
As attendance grows, so do cliques and cohorts and this fragmentation may cause frustration amongst some members. You may incentivize some attendees to remain present and even shine a spotlight on them, while discouraging or blocking the attendance of others. At times, this causes a backlash.
People may question or cry foul regarding what sponsors, activities, and attendees you allow, and other events may arise as members wish to migrate elsewhere. Your event, however, is currently the place to be, making it difficult for other events to attract attendees—but new events are sprouting up every day and historically events like yours are short-lived.
The creation of your event generated an opportunity for some attendees, but now it feels like a threat since some claim they can’t opt out; their network (or rather net worth) depends on your event.
That being said, it is still your event and you are not forced to provide opportunities. You are still in charge and people are still in control of whether they want to be there.
Yet, this can all change…
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, we should be very wary of allowing the government to have a larger role in industry matters. If platforms and search engines are held liable for user actions, everything and anything will need to be validated and verified, and this will be to the dismay of startup social networks or budding bloggers who lack the capacity for doing so. It would also be to the dismay of users since algorithms and curated content may end up being removed by host sites and service providers altogether for fear of being found at fault.
Removing Section 230 would stifle engagement and interaction in the online realm just as it would for the scenario depicted above. And what is worst of all, the nanny state would solidify its spot as an overbearing chaperone at every event.
“The demand to ‘restrict’ technology is the demand to restrict man’s mind. It is nature—i.e., reality—that makes both these goals impossible to achieve. Technology can be destroyed, and the mind can be paralyzed, but neither can be restricted. Whenever and wherever such restrictions are attempted, it is the mind—not the state—that withers away.” Return of the Primitive: The Anti-Industrial Revolution, 285
Dr. Kimberlee Josephson is an Associate Professor of Business at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pennsylvania, and a Research Fellow for the Consumer Choice Center.
This article was originally published on FEE.org. Read the original article.