How Twitter, Google, FB & YouTube Are Breaching The Internet's Most Influential Law

You don't pick what you see on social media, a computer does.

Photo by Sara Kurfeß on Unsplash

Without the section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA) of 1996, Twitter, Google, FB & YouTube (TGFY) and other websites that share user generated content could be legally liable for what users post and share. For example, if a political party shares misinformation through a Twitter account to influence other users, Twitter could be legally liable if it wasn’t for Section 230. This statutory protection encouraged entrepreneurs to build platforms on the internet starting 1966 without having to worry about legal ramifications. The internet we know of today wouldn't exist if it wasn't for this code section.

Section 230 protection comes with a big caveat. The protection is only applicable to platforms, not publishers. Platforms are merely services that disseminate user generated content without any editorial process. Publishers disseminate user generated content after subjecting them to an editorial process.

For example, if you were to post something on Twitter, you would simply create a tweet. It gets posted and becomes visible to millions of users without going through any editorial process. In contrast, say you want to publish something in NY Times newspaper. First, you have to submit a story. After multiple revisions and edits by the editors, your story get published. Here, NY times works as a publisher. Publishers are legally responsible for what they publish; platforms are not legally responsible for what they disseminate thanks to Section 230 protection. You get the point.

How Twitter, Google, FB & YouTube are crossing the line

Interestingly, TGFY are currently operating as a hybrid. They are primarily platforms but some of their actions make them publishers.

People generate a lot of content these days. TGFY use platform specific algorithms to arrange user generated content. These algorithms have the ability to amplify certain user generated content and undermine other content. Algorithms are developed internally to maximize ad revenue. It could be argued that algorithm based content sharing is a form of “editing” because user generated information is never distributed evenly. The algorithm makes certain information visible for some readers while others are excluded from it. This makes TGFY publishers.

Second, platforms like Twitter has been accused of censorship. It recently blocked links to a New York Post article about Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden's son. This kind of censorship clearly indicates that twitter is functioning as publisher, not as a platform which gets the immunity from Section 230.

Needless to say that TGFY do not want to be publishers because they don't want to be liable for content generated by billions of users. However, they still have to do a some sort of algorithmic edit to user generated content to maximize ad revenue and keep the users stick to the platform by making feeds more engaging.

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