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One of the central questions for our elected officials is how we can exercise effective control over technology.
On some days, like when lawmakers asks if the tech giants have gotten too powerful, I feel confident government officials can. Right now … I'm not so sure.
The Senate is holding a hearing on Wednesday allegedly about revising or reversing a constitution on the internet that enables sites like Facebook and YouTube by providing limited legal protection to user contributions. It is, in principle, a worthwhile debate about how US law should balance protecting people from online horror with providing space for online expression.
But the hearing is mostly a senseless circus.
As early as Tuesday, I discovered that a tweet from Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz portrayed the congressional hearing as a "free speech showdown" – essentially a verbal WrestleMania match with the Twitter executive who is considered the villain and Senator Cruz was billed as a hero. This is not the hallmark of serious policy making.
Somewhere in this waste of tax dollars and our time is a meaty political problem. The 1996 Internet Act, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, allowed sites like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter to exist and grow without being sued for what users posted.
All kinds of people are now asking if the law needs to be revised for various reasons. Many Democrats believe that Section 230 sites like Facebook and YouTube can avoid responsibility for fire, violence, or misleading things posted by people. Many Republicans – sometimes misrepresenting the law – say these companies should be more involved with what people can say online in order to avoid what they consider partisan censorship.
The crux of the matter is the attempt to balance competing interests. According to Section 230, small websites can thrive without breaking defamation lawsuits defenses. And there are huge internet sites out there with a tremendous amount of untested performance. Can the legislature preserve the good parts of the law while cutting out the bad parts?
There is no simple solution, but the job of the US Senators is to approach complex problems in nuanced ways. Your job is not to stage a WrestleMania.
I'm not just going to pick Republicans.
Senate Democrats also roared that their colleagues' decision to hold this hearing so close to election day was a way to fear internet companies from aggressively fighting election-related misinformation. You're not wrong, but it wasn't a worthwhile political discussion either.
Internet managers, including Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter's Jack Dorsey, kept suggesting that they don't lead online speeches and that computers – not people – make decisions about what people see online. That is also wrong. Everything you see or don't see on sites like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube is there because the employees of these companies made a decision. After all, humans program computers. And they talk to umpires.
If you'd like to better understand the important issues, I posted a Twitter thread with articles discussing the compromises of this Internet law and suggesting helpful ideas for reform. Even Zuckerberg is almost (somewhat insincerely) asking the government to write laws specifying what should be classified as dangerous and illegal online language.
Senator Cory Gardner, a Republican from Colorado, came up with the difficult balancing act during the hearing. "I don't like the idea of unelected elites in San Francisco or Silicon Valley deciding whether my speech is allowed on their platform," he said, "but I like the idea even less of unelected bureaucrats in Washington, DC try to enforce some. " Kind of politically neutral content moderation. "
Good point. But what is the solution then? The problem is that the legislature does not show that they are dealing with the law. Instead, they mostly just scream.
Your head start
Send us your election questions
With election day less than a week away, we monitor how technology companies like Facebook and Twitter handle the surge in information (and misinformation) related to votes and results on their websites. What if a fake voting rumor goes viral or a candidate declares victory before all of the votes have been cast?
We want to hear what you are curious about or concerned about when Americans vote.
My Times colleagues and I will try to answer a selection of your questions in the coming days. Send an email to [email protected] and write VOTE in the subject line.
Before we go …
Do you think the internet companies are scary? A Washington Post columnist found that political campaigns had access to thousands of pieces of information about him, including his creditworthiness, mortgage amount, phone numbers, and inferences about his hobbies. "Privacy may be a cornerstone of American freedom, but politicians on either side of the aisle have no problem breaking into it," he wrote.
It wasn't uncommon for technicians and managers to show little interest in politics. It changes. Recode writes about 15 wealthy tech executives who, mostly for the first time, are making large donations to political candidates against President Trump. And my colleagues Erin Griffith and Nathaniel Popper showed the rifts that emerged when technical executives realized they couldn't avoid political debates in their companies.
The high stakes risk of selling on Amazon: Bloomberg News writes of a man who claims Amazon falsely accused him of selling counterfeit clothing on the shopping side, destroyed his inventory and brought down his retail business. The article shows the power imbalance between Amazon and the merchants who rely on it.
I had never heard of the photo player musical instrument – it looks like a piano from your feverish dream – and it's a messy, wonderful miracle. (Thanks to my colleague Dodai Stewart for tweeting this miracle.)
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