Editorial: Maybe it is time we fundamentally change the internet

photo by: Journal-World Photo Illustration

Lawrence Journal-World Editorial

Most of America probably does not realize that we could make a massive change to the internet with a relatively small eraser.

All it would take to fundamentally change how the internet operates is the removal of about 25 words in a single federal law. Those words can be found in section 230 of a law known as the Communications Decency Act.

If you have been on the internet lately, you might have seen some evidence that the act is not quite living up to its name. To be fair, we might get better results if we were to translate the law into Russian.

Joking aside, the Russians are one reason it is worth having a conversation about fundamentally changing the internet. The Russians used the internet and social media to interfere in our elections. Serious people do not doubt this. The issue continues to get too little attention by the Trump administration, and now that the impeachment proceedings have begun, it is getting too little attention from Democrats too.

But politicians do continue to find some time to talk about issues such as breaking up the big tech companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter. They also talk about whether Facebook and Google ought to play a more active role as censor. If we aren’t careful, we’re going to let social media screw up the First Amendment. Instead of tampering with that sacrosanct piece of law, we should consider chipping away at section 230.

In basic terms, section 230 is the part of federal law that says website owners generally aren’t responsible for the content that other people publish on their websites. Think of the sometimes crazy comments that come after the articles on news websites. The news companies that publish the actual articles generally can’t be held responsible for the comments made by the commenters, even if they are libelous or defamatory. That’s thanks to section 230.

Far bigger beneficiaries of the law, however, are companies like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, all of which basically are built upon content that comes from other people. The federal regulation has its societal benefits. It allows for a community of commentary to reach the wider world in ways that it likely would not, absent the protection from prosecution.

But there are also societal drawbacks to what Section 230 allows. In essence, it makes it very difficult to hold anyone accountable for demonstrably false and damaging information. After all, no one on the internet really has to use a real name. Sure, if you are the FBI or law enforcement, maybe there are tactics you can use to figure out the identity of a poster. But the police aren’t going to help you solve a simple defamation case.

So, if you can’t sue the website company and you can’t figure out who actually posted the damaging information, what are you to do?

Maybe you change the law. It seems like a reasonable alternative to letting the world become consumed by disinformation. One change to section 230 could be that website publishers continue to receive liability protection from user-generated content, if the website publisher can attest to the identity of the user and will readily turn over that identity when ordered by a court to do so. If the website publisher can’t attest to the identity of the user, then the website publisher can be sued in the user’s place.

Certainly, some tech executives and social media fans would argue this would be a death knell to any website that relies on user-generated content and comments. Maybe not. What the idea has on its side is that a couple of the richest companies in the world, Facebook and Google, are basically built on nothing more than user-generated content. They also happen to be very good at technology. They have billions and billions of reasons to come up with a technology solution to easily identify who is on the other end of the keyboard.

We ought to send a message to the companies that we would like them to try. Fiddling with a small eraser may be just the thing to get their attention.

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