The problem is that these companies want the best of both worlds. They want to be able to both act as content arbiters — that is publishers — even as they escape the legal responsibilities that publishers rightly face in this country.
And the law that governs the internet — the 1996 Communications Decency Act — lets them get away with it.
That’s why we all watch in wonder as Facebook, Google and Twitter stumble through halfhearted attempts to govern content on their sites.
Meanwhile, the 8Chans and 4Chans of the world exist under the same protections. With few exceptions, like failing to quickly take down child sex trafficking material, they too don’t have to worry about being drawn into court to face civil or criminal liabilities for what they publish. (Some internet giants initially resisted even the sex trafficking reform until the absurdity of their position became too politically untenable.)
Thankfully, this problem is drawing increasing government scrutiny. It isn’t just the propagation of violence or terrorist radicalization or electoral manipulation. It’s also the way Google, Facebook and Twitter do arbitrate content, and the increasing evidence that they are making editorial decisions that smack of political bias.
Americans on both sides of the political aisle are weary of the internet as it is. It’s not healthy for us in its current form. The more time we spend on it, the more we understand that.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. It can be improved. But that will mean reforming the internet in a way that will almost surely reduce the reach of the most powerful platforms and search engines.
Given the role those companies now play in our society, reform needs to be thoughtful. But it must also be centered on ensuring there is responsibility at each level of content creation, publication and distribution on the net.
Well-managed reform will not only re-open the internet to many content distributors, but also should return monetary reward and editorial power to the people who create the content that goes on the internet, including artists, musicians, filmmakers, journalists and any number of others.
What’s more, with the rebalancing of responsibility with rights, we could see restored some sense of sanity and decency to the worldwide conversation that is the internet by adding greater responsibility to what is published and disseminated.
We could make the internet sane again.
Hasn’t the time for that come?
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