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What’s Behind the Fight Over Section 230

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Today there is yet another congressional hearing about an internet law that is older than Google: Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Please don’t stop reading.

Odds are the law won’t change. But it’s still worth talking about Section 230 because it’s a stand-in for big questions: Is more speech better, and who gets to decide? Shouldn’t we do something about giant internet companies? And who is responsible when bad things that happen online lead to people being hurt or even killed?

Let me try to explain what the law is, what’s really at stake and the proposals to fix it.

What is Section 230 again? The 26-word law allows websites to make rules about what people can or can’t post without being held legally responsible (for the most part) for the content.

If I accuse you of murder on Facebook, you might be able to sue me, but you can’t sue Facebook. If you buy a defective toy from a merchant on Amazon, you might be able to take the seller to court, but not Amazon. (There is some legal debate about this, but you get the gist.)

The law created the conditions for Facebook, Yelp and Airbnb to give people a voice without being sued out of existence. But now Republicans and Democrats are asking whether the law gives tech companies either too much power or too little responsibility for what happens under their watch.

Generally, Republicans worry that Section 230 gives internet companies too much leeway to suppress what people say online. Democrats believe that it gives internet companies a pass for failing to effectively stop illegal drug sales or prevent extremists from organizing violence.

What the fight is about, really: Everything. Our anxieties are now projected on those 26 words.

Section 230 is a proxy fight for our discomfort with Facebook and Twitter having the power to silence the president of the United States or a high school student who has nowhere else to turn. The fight over the law reflects our fears that people can lie online seemingly without consequences. And it’s about a desire to hold people accountable when what happens online causes irreparable damage.

It makes sense to ask whether Section 230 removes the incentives for online companies to put measures in place that would stop people from smearing those they don’t like or block the channels that facilitate drug sales. And likewise, it’s reasonable to ask if the real issue is that people want someone, anyone — a broken law or an unscrupulous internet company — to blame for the bad things that humans do to one another.

One topic of the congressional hearing on Thursday is the many proposed bills to amend Section 230, mostly around the edges. My colleague David McCabe helped me categorize the proposals into two (somewhat overlapping) buckets.

Fix-it Plan 1: Raise the bar. Some lawmakers want online companies to meet certain conditions before they get the legal protections of Section 230.

One example: A congressional proposal would require internet companies to report to law enforcement when they believe people might be plotting violent crimes or drug offenses. If the companies don’t do so, they might lose the legal protections of Section 230 and the floodgates could open to lawsuits.

Facebook this week backed a similar idea, which proposed that it and other big online companies would have to have systems in place for identifying and removing potentially illegal material.

Another proposed bill would require Facebook, Google and others to prove that they hadn’t exhibited political bias in removing a post. Some Republicans say that Section 230 requires websites to be politically neutral. That’s not true.

Fix-it Plan 2: Create more exceptions. One proposal would restrict internet companies from using Section 230 as a defense in legal cases involving activity like civil rights violations, harassment and wrongful death. Another proposes letting people sue internet companies if child sexual abuse imagery is spread on their sites.

Also in this category are legal questions about whether Section 230 applies to the involvement of an internet company’s own computer systems. When Facebook’s algorithms helped circulate propaganda from Hamas, as David detailed in an article, some legal experts and lawmakers said that Section 230 legal protections should not have applied and that the company should have been held complicit in terrorist acts.

(Slate has detailed all of the proposed bills to change Section 230.)

It’s undeniable that by connecting the world, the internet as we know it has empowered people to do a lot of good — and a lot of harm. The fight over this law contains multitudes. “It comes out of frustration, all of this,” David told me.



  • Amazon’s tricky political balancing act: David’s latest article looks at how Amazon is trying to stay on the good side of Democratic leaders in Washington while also quashing a union drive that many Democratic politicians have supported. (Also, one of Amazon’s senior executives picked a fight on Twitter with Senator Bernie Sanders.)

  • Math lessons for your child (and you): The Wall Street Journal explains some of the educational apps and services that can help families with math homework, lessons and tutoring. One example: You can take a photo of a math equation and Photomath will spit out the answer with instructions on how to solve it.

  • It took the Pentagon three weeks to make a bad meme: Vice News has the details on Defense Department staff crafting a visual online joke about Russians, malicious software and maybe Halloween candy? The meme wasn’t funny, it took 22 days to create and it was retweeted only 190 times.

Dolphins! In the East River of New York! This is weird! (But apparently not so weird. Here are more details about dolphin sightings around Manhattan.)


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How China’s Outrage Machine Kicked Up a Storm Over H&M

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Squirrel Video, a Weibo account dedicated to silly videos, shared the Communist Youth League’s original post on H&M with its 10 million followers. A gadget blogger in Chengdu with 1.4 million followers shared a clip showing a worker removing an H&M sign from a mall. A user in Beijing who posts about television stars highlighted entertainers who had ended their contracts with Adidas and other targeted brands.

“Today’s China is not one that just anyone can bully!” he wrote to his nearly seven million followers. “We do not ask for trouble, but we are not afraid of trouble either.”

A fashion influencer named Wei Ya held a live video event on Friday hawking products made with Xinjiang cotton. In her Weibo post announcing the event, she made sure to tag the Communist Youth League.

By Monday, news sites were circulating a rap video that combined the cotton issue with some popular recent lines of attack on Western powers: “How can a country where 500,000 have died of Covid-19 claim the high ground?”

One Weibo user posted a lushly animated video that he said he worked through the night to make. It shows white-hooded men pointing guns at Black cotton pickers and ends with a lynching.

“These are your foolish acts; we would never,” a caption reads.

Less than two hours after the user shared the video, it was reposted by Global Times, a party-controlled newspaper known for its nationalist tone.

Many web users who speak up during such campaigns are motivated by genuine patriotism, even if China’s government does pay some people to post party-line comments. Others, such as the traffic-hungry blog accounts derided in China as “marketing accounts,” are probably more pragmatic. They just want the clicks.

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NFTs Are Neither Miracles nor Scams

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Perhaps you find this confusing or silly. Push that aside for a minute.

Mostly, my beef about NFTs is how people, particularly those who live and breathe technology, talk about them and other emerging companies or concepts including the blockchain, the audio chatroom Clubhouse and ultra fast trains.

Almost immediately, people sort themselves into camps to declare that THIS WILL CHANGE THE WORLD or it’s TOTAL CODSWALLOP THAT WILL RUIN EVERYTHING. We would all benefit from more breath and less breathlessness.

In life, most things are neither glorious revolutions nor doom. And behind most novel ideas is often the possibility of something useful. The trouble is that hyperbole and greed often make it hard to sort the glimmers of promise from the horse manure. So let’s take a step back.

The purported big idea behind NFTs, as Kevin and Charlie Warzel, my colleague in Opinion, each explained this week, is to tackle a problem that the internet created. With sites like YouTube and TikTok, anyone now has the power to make music, a piece of writing, entertainment or another creative work and be noticed. But the internet has not really fulfilled the promise of enabling the masses to make a good living from what they love.

NFTs and the related concept of the blockchain hold the promise to, in part, give people ways to make their work more valuable by creating scarcity. There is promise in letting creators rely less on middlemen including social media companies, art dealers and streaming music companies.

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What We Got Wrong About Uber and Lyft

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What went wrong? Gregory D. Erhardt, who analyzes transportation modeling systems at the University of Kentucky, told me that the companies and some transportation experts misjudged how the ride services would be used.

The theory of on-demand rides was that they would be like carpooling. As people drove to work, they’d pick up an extra person or two along the way — and some money, too. But Uber and Lyft turned out to be more like taxis.

Uber and Lyft, as they expanded, focused on dense urban areas, where there were plenty of potential drivers and riders. But even there, drivers spend a large percentage of their working hours roaming around without fares and clogging the streets, Dr. Erhardt said. The combination of all of these factors was more miles driven in many large and midsize cities. (Dr. Erhardt and his colleagues are soon publishing additional research into the effects of ride-hail services in about 250 U.S. metropolitan areas.)

Dr. Erhardt and I talked over three lessons from this misjudgment. First, Uber and Lyft need to share their data so that cities can understand the services’ impact on the roads. Second, public officials need to steer transportation policy to encourage helpful behaviors and limit destructive ones. And third, new technology needs guardrails in place — and maybe those need to be established before its impact is obvious.

The first point is that Uber and Lyft, which tend to keep certain information such as where people travel and idling times secret, need to share information with cities and researchers. “Cities are pushing hard and have a strong case that we should be able to use this data for planning and research purposes,” Dr. Erhardt said.

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