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April 10, 2018

Facebook Has Put the Internet in Crisis

  Dallas Morning News

Some of the most popular parts of the internet are in crisis. Recent bombshell reports about Facebook's data practices have sparked outrage among consumers, investors, lawmakers and regulators, triggering congressional hearings and Federal Trade Commissionand state attorneys general investigations. These Facebook headlines join many others about questionable conduct enabled by dominant internet platforms, which taken together have created a groundswell of anger and concern.

And it's bipartisan, too. Democrats include Facebook in their list of culprits for President Donald Trump's election, because it allowed sources in Russia to advertise and post "fake news." And Republicans, or at least conservatives, are convinced that Facebook and its Silicon Valley values are discriminating against conservative content and websites.

Companies like Facebook, Twitter and Google contend they're just platforms, neutral mediums through which communication and commerce flow, and thus cannot be expected to monitor or moderate the content traversing their products and services.

And laws like Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act and Section 512 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act provide them with a "safe harbor" from legal liability for user-posted content under the assumption that the platforms themselves are neutral and cannot reasonably police conduct by users. This system has enabled platforms to thrive, but cracks are beginning to appear, highlighted by the recent change in Section 230 provoked by human trafficking on websites like Backpage.com.

These behaviors by internet platforms make their we're-neutral-platforms pleas ring hollow.

That's because the platforms themselves don't act in a neutral way. They claim to be neutral and even unable to police their networks, yet they block opinions and take down provocative political websites while at the same time claiming they can't do anything about websites that traffic in copyright piracy and other illegal activities.

And, in Facebook's case, facilitating a foreign country's influence and interference in a presidential election, which happens to also be illegal. For internet platforms, one would think that a bright line would be not facilitating illegal activity.

Perhaps even worse, the instinct among the leaders of these platforms seems to be that they can solve their problems by relying on other similar platforms. Hate speech and terrorist propaganda should be met with "counter-speech" — but by users, not the platforms themselves. "Fake news" should be addressed by conscripting fact-checking organizations like Snopes.com, as opposed to demoting or delisting demonstrably fake content.

The latest example of this strategy is YouTube chief executive Susan Wojcicki's announcement that they will be adding "information cues" from Wikipedia to combat conspiracy theories that proliferate on the service. According to Wired magazine, this is designed to provide "a ground-level truth for a platform unwilling to provide one of its own."

Tellingly, YouTube didn't extend Wikipedia the courtesy of forewarning the network of volunteer contributors that they are now responsible for combating the conspiracy theories that infect the site.

In response, Wikimedia Foundation executive director Katherine Maher issued a statement: "We are always happy to see people, companies and organizations recognize Wikipedia's value as a repository of free knowledge [but] we were surprised that we hadn't been contacted ... Wikipedia is not something that just exists ... It takes work and it requires labor."

Wikimedia, which depends on the free contribution of labor, doesn't seem to want its content taken by YouTube, which also depends on freely contributed labor and content. This crazy circle of platforms all selling advertising and the private information of users whose labor, creativity and content has been obtained for free is ripe for implosion.

Google founder Larry Page once told Wikipedia's founder Jimmy Wales, according to an interview in the Evening Standard: "Just keep doing what you're doing."

Up to now, lawmakers and regulators have tolerated this disregard for the rights of users and the harm it causes, but they don't seem willing to simply sit back much longer.

For a healthy Internet ecosystem to flourish, the value of labor, creativity and content must be recognized, the rights of users must be respected, and internet platforms must begin to incorporate the values, norms and laws of civil society that have long been established in the analog realm. The internet is not so different as it would like to be.


 

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