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

Can We Talk?

Difficult topics, difficult times. It’s getting hotter out there. Is real conversation still possible?

A recent piece in the Wall Street Journal got me thinking about that. It’s by Amanda Ripley, entitled: America, Meet America: Getting Past Our Toxic Partisanship (6/30/17). The author offers a powerful viewpoint on making peace with each other through interaction, in essence, the widened use of “exchange programs” like some of us experienced in high school or college. In many ways the premise is optimistic, even idealistic. People who have direct relationships with each other tend to be kinder to each other and less likely to be outright dismissive of ideological differences.

I don’t think it is impossible for us tolerate each other’s differences in the abstract. The problem I see comes with the common allocation of shared resources. When we all pool our dollars into a fund, especially when we are compelled to do so by a tax system, we are likely to have ardent disagreements about how those dollars should be used. That’s when personal philosophy becomes policy, and policy as a matter of democracy is less about consensus than it is about majority opinion. That as we know can be ugly, messy, and leave seeds of resentment, because legislative action transpires on current majorities, but policies once adopted can be difficult to unwind.

The problem with compromise is that it does not bridge values. If some people think universal healthcare is a civil right and some don’t, and we all have to pay for it, I don’t think there is a common worldview that bridges our differences. Same with a woman’s right to choose. That means we all become subject to prevailing law, like it or not, unless we wish to break the bounds of prevailing law, which inordinately few would ever consider reasonable. Again this is the sausage making of nightmares. No one stays happy for long, and bitterness has a compounding effect that is exacerbated by social media shorthand and abrupt defensiveness.

Where does that leave us? Pragmatism suggests we need coping mechanisms or we become frozen. I think that means we will find comfort in our own circles and collectives. We will begin to ignore rather than constantly confront our opponents and try to sweep hostility under the rug in tending to our lives. What it also means is that the rage is likely to fester, and while it may be convenient to leave well enough alone, it probably means lost opportunity in real unity. Does that mean the U.S will lose global leadership economically and in championing democracy? Yes, I think that’s inevitable. We can’t do big, important things together if we hate each other. We can visit each other and learn to tolerate each other, but commonality of purpose has to be built upon a majority of shared values. It has to be authentic. It can’t be feigned.

We are making this choice implicitly by agreeing that noble compromise on certain issues of shared resources is simply not honest or acceptable. We can share roads and bridges across red and blue lines until they crumble, and it will take all the statesmanship we have just to keep noncontroversial initiates functional. To think we can continue to do more than that is not terribly sensible. Thus we all lose together, which is probably the proper outcome of this dialectic.

We have been doing some work of late at The Good Men Project that is perhaps itself idealistic. Over the past six months we have expended our subscription service, also known as our premium membership program, to include telephone conference calls on difficult topics. We bring together people of varying opinions into what we call Social Interest Groups, assign a moderator, and allow people to engage across geographic, demographic, and ideological lines to learn from each other. The beta test has been so successful our staff is deploying an Indiegogo campaign to see if they can double or even triple the number of subject offerings and group leaders who are paid a nominal fee for planning the discussions and keeping them on track week to week.

I think the project is notable if for no other reason than it celebrates excellent conversation. I’ve suggested on more than one occasion to GMP CEO Lisa Hickey that I think conversation is one of the few high value products we lose over time that is remarkably difficult to commercialize. You remember good conversation, right? Oh, how we miss those long talks with friends and acquaintances about our favorite book, the reasons we go to war, and on wild tangents the meaning of life. What if those conversations could continue in our lives, with new topics and new participants, scheduled periodically for easy attendance, each episode self-contained but the connecting episodes serialized for those who have the time? We thought that might be an interesting way to bridge the divide. Maybe we are optimists at heart.

Lisa calls The Good Men Project a “participatory media company” because the content is written by the community and personal interaction within the community is what makes it distinct. We tend not to think of online commenting as the be-all and end-all of social interaction, particularly when it is anonymous. Rather we like the idea of people talking and listening about a complex subject, then thinking about it for a week and returning to talk about it some more. The participation is authentic, and while a certain amount of curation is imposed to maintain editorial standards, we are happiest when we are surprised by learning something we didn’t know before the participatory moment.

We also like to think that civility is best achieved through respect, which occurs less through the editorial funnel than it does from exemplary human behavior. Okay, so it can function as a sort of student exchange program. Maybe real dialogue is possible. Maybe inspirational conversation isn’t completely dead. I’d be going overboard if I suggested there might be a big idea here that could circumvent the festering rage that is destroying us, but hey, a good verbal chat each week certainly can’t hurt things.

The product is conversation. The value is a bit of connection and a bit of joy through sharing and compassion. I hope this experiment is a beginning. If we don’t find some way to talk to each other, the dark consequences seem as obvious as they are unavoidable.

Everyday Innovation

You don’t have to be an entrepreneur to be an innovator. Becoming a startup CEO may not be your thing, but changing the world is always within your reach.

There is a frenzy of late among those longing to lead business startups, and that is exciting. Entrepreneurs are a special breed, and while the successful ones are rare, no one really knows who is going to be successful in advance. Naysayers will tell you what you can’t do, and only you can prove them wrong.

When we talk about innovation, that undoubtedly points to entrepreneurs, but I’d like to think it not exclusive to them. Innovation is a process where creativity is harnessed, often galvanized through the building of momentum and the sharing of a vision. Often a new project or the reinvention of a product type begins with very few people involved, perhaps only one. The idea is refined and vetted, resources are added, more people get onboard, a consensus around a feature set emerges, and eventually it comes to be owned by a team. If you’ve ever been a part of this kind of team, you know how invigorating the process can be.

A subset of this process is the highly competitive world of funded startup companies, and that is a different beast entirely. In a quite insightful op-ed in the Wall Street Journal about the trials and tribulations of Uber, Andy Kessler recently noted the sometimes seething nature of a startup CEO who makes it through the hurdle of significant investment in their ambitions to excavate a gold mine:

Hubris becomes an asset. Startup CEOs are always saying the goal is to “suck the oxygen out of the room” of their competitors. Success requires a certain bravado. That should be encouraged, but most entrepreneurs have no idea when to turn it off.

There’s nothing wrong with being competitive, embracing ambition, and wanting to do the impossible. Does the goal of that have to be the annihilation of those who currently populate a market segment? Maybe because it’s the holidays, I wonder how that thinking aligns with Give Peace a Chance, but I think you can change the world without an ethos of leveling good chunks of it.

It is important to our economy and financial well-being that new companies are constantly born, that creative destruction replaces old opportunities with new ones. It is also limiting to evaluate innovation on this metric alone. If the only creativity that receives our highest praise is the moonshot IPO or breathtaking acquisition multiple, perhaps we send a difficult message to our colleagues and children that commercial success is the most important success. Do we really believe that it is somehow less noble to be part of reinvention that is not about clubbing a competitor over the head and walking away with his or her bounty?

Innovator's DilemmaMuch has been written around the concept of disruption, where traditional ways of doing things are derailed in almost unbelievably short periods of time. We saw it happen with music and video, where digital media disrupted the business model of selling and renting physical media. We’re seeing it happen with the news business, most recently evidenced at The New Republic, where the economics of professional journalism are colliding with the realities of recovering its cost. Disruptors are a very real force as author Clayton Christensen so clearly taught us in his landmark book The Innovator’s Dilemma, but is it an end unto itself? What if someone doesn’t want to be a war-declaring disruptor?

There are all kinds of ways to define admirable innovation. Truth be told, very few of us are going to draft a business plan and schlep from angel to venture to institutional investors with an all-or-nothing mentality. If that’s not you but you still feel a hunger to join the reinvention movement, here are seven concrete ways you can embrace innovation right now:

  1. Give Yourself a Stealth Performance Review: Secretly write down exactly how you think you are doing at work. Be as candid as possible. Conclude with a set of recommendations for improvement. Pick one. Do it.
  2. Ask Your Boss for a Problem: Walk in and say, “How can I take a burden off your back? Give me something on your to-do list that is important but you don’t have time to do. Let’s brainstorm it together.” Always remember that every problem is an opportunity.
  3. Clarify Your Brand Promise: If you don’t know what your company stands for, ask someone in senior management for some evangelism around your company’s brand. Then look at the work you are doing every day. Does it align with the brand promise? If not, what tweaks can you make to your daily tasks to bring you personally more in line with your company’s expressed mission?
  4. Help a Non-Profit: Find an organization near you whose values and mission you embrace. Contact someone there in a leadership capacity. Tell them you want to help and what skills you have to offer. Ask them what is on their plate that isn’t being addressed. Address it.
  5. Fix Your Personal Budget: Develop a formal income statement for yourself or your family. Write down all sources of revenue and expenses. Look for areas where money is leaking out that needn’t be. Plug the holes. Get your credit under control. If you have longer-term needs, create a formal plan for getting there.
  6. Get a Hobby: Right, you don’t have the time. Yet a hobby allows you to abstract so many of your daily thoughts and tie back that problem solving to your everyday responsibilities. Plant a garden, bake, follow a sports team, adopt a pet. Don’t think of it as a diversion, think of it as a commitment to lifelong learning and self-improvement. Push yourself to approach it slightly differently from those already doing it.
  7. Coach a Friend: Look around your circle of acquaintances for someone who might be struggling a little. Offer to be a coach or mentor for the next six to twelve months. Ask nothing in return. I promise you the ideas that will emerge from your discussions will be as valuable to your personal growth as they are to the friend. Ideas and energy compound when shared. You may forget who is coaching whom.

Startups can be cool, but all innovation does not require a startup environment. Creativity is a process that leads to all kinds of new stuff, and it also exhausts dead ends around stuff not worth doing or not ready to be done. Instead of making a hollow new year’s resolution, pick a path to one of the above suggestions or come up with your own idea for reinventing the world around you. Everyday Innovation is there for the taking. Go make change happen, and I’ll see you at the starting gate!