My Take On 230

A good friend on social media asked for my opinion on why Donald Trump would be so adamantly opposed to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996. For years it is precisely Section 230 that has allowed him to expand his unedited voice and create his vast following. Now he’s banned on most of these platforms including Twitter and Facebook, which some would argue are at long last exerting a form of editorial oversight. Rather than hide behind their legal ability to allow him to rant, they have essentially silenced him.

Ironic, huh? Not exactly what he wanted in limiting this broad permission.

Has something good or bad happened? I think the answer is neither, but something evolutionary is unfolding, and depending on where that takes us, we can decide later like most history if it was good or bad.

Confusing stuff, no question. Let me try to unpack some of it as someone who has been working in this space almost since day one of the commercial internet.

While personally I would say my life has improved without the constant noise of Trump tweets, I’m afraid the world is not that simple. The resolution of this exercise may have frightening connotations in the abstract. Many are worried about free speech and arbitrary limits on the power of a single individual to curtail the public expression of another, which is something that matters dearly to all of us.

I’m not a legal professional by any stretch, but I don’t think a specific defense of ex-President Trump is what matters here. Trump no more understands Section 230 than he understands global trade and tariffs. He wants his speech free and speech against him controlled, like any dangerous autocrat. Let’s set him aside (doesn’t that feel great?) and think about the real risks and privileges waltzing into the arena of public discourse.

For reference, the historic 26 words that constitute Section 230 read: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

As simply stated as possible, that means the technology platforms are not liable for what they publish. They don’t want to be considered authors, publishers, or broadcasters. If the Wall Street Journal prints something that bothers you and you think is unfair or sloppy, you can sue it. Same with legacy brand survivors like CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox, CNN, Us Weekly, or your local talk radio station. You can sue the person who said it or wrote it, too. If you think you have been libeled, you can sue everyone. You are way more likely to lose than win, but your case can be heard in court.

These kinds of traditional media companies have accepted the responsibility to abide by legal standards of accuracy and honesty of some sort, and they must stand by the messages they share. Mostly they print retractions when they find themselves wrong, but that doesn’t stop you from seeking damages. It’s an imperfect system dependent on evolving standards, and whether we like it or not we have learned to live with it.

If you don’t like what I say about you on Facebook or Twitter, you can sue me. You can’t sue Facebook or Twitter.

What’s the difference? Section 230.

Why is there a difference? That’s what’s about to be debated heavily.

Why was the exception created? That will also widely be debated in the months and years ahead, but having been there at the outset, my sense is that it was because federal lawmakers wanted the internet to grow. They wanted to increase free speech, so we all could bring our voices to the marketplace of ideas. They probably had an inkling some of us were wacky and would make up lunatic fringe falsehoods like QAnon, but they also knew if they held the platforms liable for everything published, very little would get published. The internet would have the same filters on it as traditional media, a funnel and a gatekeeper on opinions that limited expression with editorial oversight. They hoped for something more accessible.

Remember, this was a quarter-century ago. Better angels were optimistically anticipated.

The problem here is the division is not clean when all of our voices are collected. If the technology platforms exert no control, we have the chaos we have experienced. If they exert traditional editorial control to manage or reduce liability, all internet dialogue becomes gated, and as a practical matter, the scale of the task makes it impossible to be done by humans. That would put the editorial control at the mercy of algorithms, which at this point in their evolution given the nuance of language will be even less successful than humans.

That brings us to the present conundrum. If a platform now and again edits a comment to conform to its terms and conditions, has it crossed over to becoming an editor liable for everything else on the platform? According to current law, as private companies, these platforms have a right to state terms and conditions and assert the right to enforce them.

The real question becomes whether multiple infringements of terms and conditions can justly lead to the banning of an individual, like Trump. This is the heart of the matter: Do we want an individual company or CEO deciding who gets to have a public voice and who doesn’t?

I think the banning of Trump is going to open a huge can of worms to the platform companies because they just made policy on the fly and that can’t be extrapolated fairly.

Free speech is an interesting corollary, but only because we largely understand it must have limits to work in practice. Today we know there are legal restraints on free speech because it has been tested and adjudicated. While we now understand that a Nazi group had the right to march in Skokie, we also know that is not the same as yelling fire in a crowded theater. We didn’t always know that. It took a lot of time and argument to unfold and reveal itself to multiple courts. It’s been messy, and yet free speech survives.

I think we’re there with Section 230. It’s the right big idea, but 25 years later with wildly consolidated corporate power and big new media money at play, it requires a great deal of interpretation, nuance, and finesse. It’s no more an absolute than free speech. Yes, we really can disallow direct, personally threatening hate speech without fully destroying the First Amendment. The reasoning is not straightforward except in hindsight, when we consider the more pernicious alternatives.

Regulation here is our friend, not our enemy. My sense is the dialogue we need to have is not about throwing out Section 230, but reasonably debating the rights and responsibilities of social media platforms without making them liable for every post crossing their servers. Here is where it gets even more tricky, because the law clearly allows a private business to ban an individual for violation of its stated terms and condition, yet provides very little in the way of enforcing those standards evenly beyond obvious discrimination.

One person gets banned, another does not. How does one challenge or appeal the equal application of silencing rules? In the final analysis, what ensures us or at least gives us confidence that authority is anything but arbitrary? There is no such thing as goodwill or trust when the profit motive of the platform benefits enormously from throwing kerosene on the fire of controversy—fueling viral engagement equates to generating revenue—yet it can eliminate its critics at will under the guise of decency. That is a mega problem we aren’t even close to solving!

We don’t want to make the economic consequences of our discourse addressable only at a practical level by silence. Likewise, we don’t want any business individual with a profit motive to have the power of doling out silence for convenience. Hearst had that kind of power. Zuckerberg can’t.

The Trump legacy may be the bookends that form around Section 230, which clearly are necessary because the platforms are neither fish nor fowl. This is new ground. Internet platforms are not voices per se, but the application of needed editorial standards around facts and lies does not make them voiceless. As I write often, technology advances much faster than our ability to understand its ethical consequences.

Sadly, this morass is likely to be argued largely on economic grounds, because the remedies surrounding liability are compensated in our system through cash settlement of lawsuits. The key problem with lawsuits is they favor the well funded, and while legal, that will never approximate the ideal of fairness. I think there is a lot more at stake than whether a company might be brought to bankruptcy paying fines and settlements, which might cause it to be overly cautious, or bold and flagrant if it has deep pockets to defend itself. Financial penalties can’t be the point, be they absorbable or game-ending. There is a public-interest necessity in our ability to express ourselves. Our government has to protect that and let the business of the internet expand.

Yes, we can.

As for Trump’s point of view, he has demonstrated repeatedly that he only cares about what serves his agenda, not nuance or principle. He has succeeded in blasting open this door, but his own point of view remains self-serving. He is purposefully ignorant, a blunt object in a fragile ecosystem that requires reflection.

We are once again facing the question of whether we do truly relish the marketplace of ideas, or if this only matters when it is safe, convenient, and nominally polite. We don’t need to open the door to criminal insurrections that put our democratic nation at risk; the off switch just worked well in that regard and I’d comfortably welcome it again, if for nothing more than a badly needed time-out.

We have addressed this before, however imperfectly, and I have great faith that given the breadth of legal minds in our nation we will begin to solve it again. Trying to make it an either/or decision is a fool’s errand. We need to retain the big idea of Section 230 and add some guard rails. Once they are tested, we can adjust them. This is likely to be a combination of legislation and judicial resolution. It will be slow and complicated and evolving. It’s worth the ambiguity to sort it out carefully.

Let the real debate begin.

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Photo: Pixabay

Life After Trump


I am hopeful this is the last time I write about Donald Trump. To the extent that he obeys the law and vacates his position on January 20, 2021, and doesn’t run again for the presidency, I do have more interesting subjects to pursue.

I’ve tried ignoring him the best I could these past several years, but it would have been irresponsible not to call him out on his malfeasance. I attempted to look for interesting angles where I could in attempts not to repeat the obvious, but as a writer I had to be on the record as part of the resistance.

I don’t care if he starts TrumpTV or his loyal followers continue to listen to his divisive lies to the last day he broadcasts. I want him out of legal power. As the nation heals, so will I, although I suspect I will heal more slowly than most. His representation of an America so diametrically opposed to my ideal has taken a toll on my immune system.

More than half the nation didn’t sign up for this American carnage. A monster dumped it on us. Now we’ve dumped him.

Am I relieved? Only inasmuch as a cataclysmic disease goes into remission. You know it’s still there. The cancer is his belief set. Too many Americans still subscribe to that indefensible set of lies.

I’ve been thinking about the arc of our generation, the arc of the moral universe, as Dr. King reminds us: “no lie can live forever.” Our struggle for civil rights wasn’t expected to be without setbacks, but it also wasn’t meant to be bluntly derailed. Trump tried to hijack fifty years of progress in four years of devolution. I’m going to take a flier and say he failed, but now with broad restraints removed from the dialogue that would have us surrender too many of the hard-won social norms that edged us closer to justice, how will we choose to revive our spirits?

I think the ultimate legacy of this cynical presidency will be the accelerated deterioration in the public’s ability to discern fact from fiction. This president didn’t create the notion of fake news; he simply used his unyielding platform to make it a meme. He purposefully blurred the definition of traditional journalism for self-serving convenience. This may not be a crime in the lawbooks, but I think it is a crime against humanity.

There is fake news. It is not when a trained reporter for the Wall Street Journal makes a mistake and prints a retraction. It is when an undisciplined individual with an agenda expresses an unedited opinion as a fact without remorse, often in the chaos of social media, but sometimes opportunistically with more deliberate distribution. There is a lot of gray area between those poles, but it doesn’t take an advanced degree to understand which way the pendulum is swinging. The litmus test is intention and methodology. Is the intention to get to the truth or obscure it?

It’s not just the Trumpers to blame. The reactive nature of Trump’s opponents is often equally without reservation or hesitation. I don’t think the malady is entirely about retreating to echo chambers. I think it’s about the shameless effectiveness in discrediting the notion of authoritative sourcing.

We grew up to believe in asking for the source behind an assertion. If the public comes to believe that all sources are equally fallible, then all that is left is self-selection into bias or convenience.

To me that is the true definition of fascism—if we can believe in nothing empirical, we are left to align with a decision-maker on blind capitulation. Then all that’s left is a numbers game to determine right or wrong, also known as situational ethics, a world where there is no court of “correct” adjudication. Adherence is purely democratic and won with a majority, regardless of conviction.

That legacy is Orwellian, and it’s terrifying.

Are we at a point of no return in life after Trump? I don’t think so.

I think restoring faith in precise journalism is a critical remedy, but the how of that is in no way obvious. All media can now be lumped into the category of fake news, depending on who is making the argument.

No matter how much we may disagree, followers and detractors of InfoWars and the New York Times each believe one side is accurate and the other is lying. Somehow both of these get labeled into a bucket called media, and both are accused by those who dismiss the other as fake news.

That is the challenge facing us—can we find a way back to well-reasoned argument, or are we hopelessly lost in noise? Because the problem is solvable, I need to stay optimistic,

Watching the HBO documentary After Truth, a broad exploration of the deteriorating spread of fake news, it occurred to me what a mess we are in. We can agree that fake news is a thing, but as long as we fundamentally disagree on its definition, that definition can be weaponized.

As long as winning an argument is more important than having the correct information to assess an argument, we remain at risk of destroying each other in the name of winning. Call it the end of civility, call it the end of democracy and the doorway to fascism—whatever you call it, it’s not a world where the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice.

That to me is the key challenge to life after Trump. We share a national infrastructure and pay taxes to a common federal government, with separate and to some extent irreconcilable visions of how we assess fairness, responsibility, justice, and facts. A new president isn’t going to resolve that. If we don’t commit to the need for resolving that as fundamental to our success, our best moments are likely behind us.

I don’t want to believe we can’t agree on what is true, but like many of you, I am weary after so much fighting. I don’t want to say I am exhausted, but I am ready for a dose of stability, a roadway that isn’t crumbling under my feet. I believe in government, but I want it in the background of my life so I can paint the foreground. I don’t want to talk about what the president tweeted today, whose career he destroyed, or the obvious embarrassment of his latest falsehood. I don’t want to feel exasperated before my work even begins. I want to trust science, logic, dignity, and common sense.

I want the truth to be the truth and a lie to be a lie and for most of us to agree on the difference.

If we can get there, life after Trump will be better, if for no other reason than we will leave behind the low point of celebrating absurdity. If we can’t discover a set of shared values that define us as a nation, then I suppose it won’t matter.

I’m going to take another flier and bet on integrity. We will learn together how to build a consensus around what is true, because we have experienced a taste of what happens when we fail to recognize this necessity. We live in the same world, and there are realities in that world that are inarguable. Orwell put it as succinctly as it can be said:

Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.

Let’s start life after Trump by agreeing on that.

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Photo: Pexels

Bad Behavior Made OK

I haven’t written about Donald Trump for quite some time. No, I’m not unwell, not more than anyone else. I brought out my third novel earlier this year and wanted to try to focus on storytelling without being overly divisive, although I will say at some of my book talks the social sparks found a way to fly. Guess I can bring that out in an audience even when I don’t try too hard.

I also became creatively exhausted on the topic of politics as it pertains to my blog and let Facebook do a lot of the heavy lifting for my rolling commentary. Apologies if you have been overwhelmed by that. Well, no apology really. It’s stuff I needed to say, just not here.

Sadly the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings have roped me back in for the moment. It’s not just Kavanaugh, with whom I sadly share a branded diploma. It’s the voice of Trump that set me off. It always is.

The pervasive nature of Trump’s dysfunctional behavior for the almost two years he has been in office oozes without containment far beyond the Capital Beltway. The question of Kavanaugh’s judicial temperament was brought to bear during his highly combustible vetting. Even if he were deemed to fail this test, his shortcomings are but a pittance compared to Trump’s demonstrated abomination in presidential temperament.

Trump is not satisfied laying waste to government conventions and respectable demeanor. He has declared a culture war on civil discourse as we know it. His public comportment does not end at being reprehensible. He strives to be offensive in order to fully make the point that he has the bully pulpit, he is in charge, and he is entitled to any style of verbal combat he alone condones.

Unfortunately, his influence does not end when the video clips cease to loop. He has changed our neighborhood rules of engagement. His warring rage on opponents is bad behavior made OK.

Perhaps The Beatles said it better:

I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.

If he can be an aggressive jackass without any filters of polite society, then it’s an easy step to thinking so can I. So can you. So can we all.

So many of us are now emulating his frightening postures, we are transforming our interactions into Trump World. This seems to be what he wants. It divides us. It keeps his platform solidified while we crumble into anarchy.

What makes me so sure? It’s hard to argue with the psychological tyranny of the workplace.

If you’ve worked in an office—or pretty much anywhere with a hierarchy—you know that people begin to take on behavioral traits of the boss. It’s a real phenomenon that begins subtly enough with quirks and builds over time with implicit permissions.

Allow me to illustrate the case, and then you can fill in your own anecdotal corollary.

I once had a prominent boss who sat at the head of the table during meetings with a disposable plastic water bottle. When he finished drinking the water, he would put his hands on either side of the bottle and crush it accordion style. Within two weeks of his arrival most everyone around the table was doing the same thing. With the echoing thunder of crushed plastic, our meetings began to sound like the Fourth of July.

Want another one?

I often use a borrowed expression in work situations: “Luckier than Steve Guttenberg.” At this point in pop history, few remember where it came from, let alone the target of its sarcasm. When the movie Three Men and a Baby was released in 1987, it starred the very famous Ted Danson, Tom Selleck, and… Steve Guttenberg? In its time it was a quirky joke. It still comes out of my mouth when we get unexpectedly lucky in business. Within a week of saying it in any environment, I will hear it repeated back multiple times. I’ve asked the younger people who parrot it what it means. They have no idea, but they keep saying it. Often they laugh at the joke, not even googling the punchline.

Let’s call those relatively innocuous examples of boss behavior becoming everyone’s behavior. It gets much worse.

I had another boss with a penchant for taking credit for other people’s creative work. I should have known something was up when he regularly used brilliant media samples created by companies unaffiliated with ours to pitch the potential of our company to clients and investors. He never actually said we created those samples, he just used them to illustrate possibility, so I bit my tongue and let it go. I noticed others around me were also squirming, and the level of trust with this boss became built on silence rather than candor. Later he decided a high-profile project I had designed from concept to prototype hadn’t really been created by me but by him. He took over development of it from me and asked me to focus again on blue-sky initiatives. At that point I fully understood the downward norms of his success. I quit and restarted my career in a much better place.

Think of your own office emulation. Got a nasty example you can’t shrug off?

Now imagine the biggest Boss-in-Chief. Imagine how his daily abhorrent conduct is eating away at our nation’s cultural norms. Think about what you are seeing, hearing, and reading in routine circumstances that two years ago would have been considered appalling.

He mocks a victim of sexual assault. He mocks a physically disabled journalist. He belittles the military service and wartime imprisonment of a senator. He insults the supreme sacrifice of a Gold Star family. He touts his wealth as permission to have his way with women at his whim. He proclaims that his ability to avoid taxes makes him smart. He denies climate change in direct opposition to the vast majority of the global science community. He cries out “America First” in a nation that already consumes the most natural resources per capita and maintains the planet’s unequalled reserve of nuclear weapons.

What impact might that egoism be having on the rest of us? I’m not suggesting most of us long to lead rallies with chants of locking up an opponent, but think about what you are doing that you wouldn’t have done publicly in the prior time frame. Might you be acting ever so slightly differently? Are you feeling OK about it? I’m not.

Trump’s impact on our lives rises beyond the content of his thin theories and thinner policies. His stab to our innards is more than the overt lies he tells without remorse. The deterioration he is causing is systemic. Were we to be transformed in his image, his chaos would become our chaos.

Modern leadership is a privilege built upon empathy and humility. To rise above cynicism, we must embrace the notion of leadership by example. When we are entrusted with authority, what we do is what we allow others to do.

When a boss whispers, it’s a shout. When a boss shouts, it’s a call to arms.

Ridding ourselves of this malady will be no small trick. If it’s crept into your world view, start to root it out. If it’s infected your workplace, blow it up with a bomb. No, no bombs. Just eliminate it without drama. Insist collectively that the dreadful antics go away!

When enough of us allow Trump’s norms to become our own, the detriment to our well-being will last well beyond his term, likely beyond the life service of a Supreme Court justice. That vile tone will remain his legacy long after we think we are done with him.

When we rot, we decay until we dissolve. It’s not OK to let ourselves rot. Not now. Not ever.

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Image: Pixabay

Calling Out the Aberration

blue-capab·er·ra·tion [ab-uhrey-shuh n] noun; 1) the act of departing from the right, normal, or usual course; 2) the act of deviating from the ordinary, usual, or normal type; 3) deviation from truth or moral rectitude; 4) mental irregularity or disorder, especially of a minor or temporary nature; lapse from a sound mental state.

Source: Dictionary.com

I didn’t want to write about Donald Trump this month. I wanted to write about anything but Trump. I have a half-dozen articles on business topics in draft. I wanted to finish and publish one of those. Anything but Trump. Yet when I started to go down the “don’t write about Trump” path, everything else seemed trivial.

The weeks since Trump has taken office have already produced the worst series of lies and public trust abuses I have seen perpetuated on our nation in my lifetime. Language now seems a game to be played no matter how trivial or serious the topic, from inauguration attendance to made-up massacres. Like many I know, I am not getting over it. There is no getting back to normal until this con man is out of The White House. Then we’ll see what normal looks like.

In two weeks’ time we now have “alternative facts” and “so-called judges.” I grew up learning that we had verifiable facts and elected or appointed judges. One of us had a poor education or wasn’t paying attention. A “so-called judge” might be a guy in a bar blowing off steam who disagrees with a ruling whose opinion matters about as much as mine.

In middle school government class I learned about separation of powers. Does the President comprehend the idea that there are three equal parties at the top of this org chart or does he think our judges report to him? We elect a President, not a king. Please, someone explain the reality show rules to him.

Beyond the betrayal of our American values, what worries me most about Trump is the global perception that his words are all of our words. In the few weeks he has been on the job there is widespread talk of torture being okay, border walls commencing construction, economically senseless tariffs proposed, and a shamefully discriminatory travel ban ordered. We must emphasize those are his words, not all of America’s words. He is speaking for the window of time he is in power.

This will pass. We will fix it. Tell the world.

Last week I posted largely in jest that in the next election Trump’s opponent should adopt the borrowed slogan, “Make America Great Again.” We could print millions of blue caps with his own mantra. It would be more fitting than ironic. He might even sue for trademark infringement. That would be cool.

It is essential that we keep telling the world that Trump is not making America great again. He is an aberration in our social evolution. Write down that word and share it. Aberration.

Trump’s behavior is not normal. He is anything but normal. Some would say he is a sociopath. American history is progressive when it comes to civil rights. Even when conservative leaders have been in office our direction has been toward personal freedom, not authoritarianism. The Trump administration is an aberration and must be called out for it over and over again so people around the world know he does not speak for all of us.

We are divided as a nation, but at least in the popular vote, no matter what he says, there are more of us who legitimately voted for someone who wasn’t him. The global community needs to see, hear, and understand our division. That is what we mean by forming a resistance. I don’t care if he has a support base applauding him. I can say this with great conviction: anyone who is buying his act has been duped. Unless they are already in the 1%, they are going to get nothing for their loyalty.

Regardless of opposition, the words of global leaders matter. Imagine if a newly elected leader in Germany proclaimed on inauguration day: “From now on, our agenda is Germany first.” Imagine hearing that from a democracy with an uneven past. Would that sound like your fellow nation was on a positive track?

That is what people around the globe are hearing from the United States, but it’s not all of us, it’s him and whoever still buys his delusion. Pure self-interest is by definition not an admirable form of leading by example. It is exploitation and imperialism. That’s the tone we are now broadcasting from The White House.

If we have lost our core value of empathy, we have lost our place as an example of democratic leadership. I don’t believe the majority of us have abandoned empathy, which directs my voice to calling out the aberration. Trump may be my elected president, but he doesn’t speak for me. The world must hear the voice of everyone who feels that way to be reassured the tide will turn.

People ask me if we are preaching to the choir on social media, talking to ourselves until we are exhausted and even more anxious. Unless you live in an anti-Trump enclave and all your friends are anti-Trump, I say keep shouting out loud. People who are following Trump blindly need to hear that we are not backing down. More important, people outside the United States need to understand that we are not united in our support of this aberration.

Do not assume everyone across the globe understands the full idea of democracy, particularly those already living in silenced societies. Simply because Trump can list 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue as his sometime address for the next few years doesn’t mean he speaks for all Americans. We have to let the world know there is a resistance so they don’t give up on us. They see it in every word we utter against his tyranny. Our words and our fight are their hope.

This is why the Women’s March matters.

That is why the airport protests matter.

That is why talking frequently on public social media matters.

Numbers count. We need to be globally visible.

I have spoken with numerous first-generation families over the past few weeks, and they are terrified. They are American citizens or residents by right, yet they fear an executive order could change their status in an instant. They are not comforted as they should be by a president who represents their interests. They fear upheaval. They fear uncertainty. They fear persecution. They fear oppression. They fear for their families. The President has done nothing to make them believe he cares for their interests. A cabinet of billionaires tells them where the President is focusing his attention.

Say it and say it again. Raise your voice. The resistance is real.

Keep making noise. It matters.

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This article originally appeared on The Good Men Project.