IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

If Facebook, Google and Twitter want to avoid new regulation, they need to police their users better

Tech companies need to stop creating an appetite for government interference by actively cleaning up their act.
Image: Jack Dorsey
Jack Dorsey speaks during The New York Times 2017 DealBook Conference at Jazz at Lincoln Center on Nov. 9, 2017 in New York City.Michael Cohen / Getty Images for The New York Times

Donald Trump’s enemies list grows by the day: His latest attacks on Google, Facebook and Big Tech are the logical progression of his campaign against any sources that contradict his warped worldview and the skewed narratives pumped out by his supporters. But both he and his supporters always take it further, using the well-worn right-wing strategy of attacking the messenger in addition to the message whenever the facts are against them..

As I wrote on Twitter a few days ago, Trump would get better news coverage if he stopped appointing crooks and tax cheats to important jobs. Or if he focused on helping lower health care costs, instead of devising new giveaways to the rich. Or if he stopped lying and saying things that are provably false. Or if he... well, you get the picture.

Far from being a victim of discrimination, Donald Trump has benefited more from social media than any politician in history. Twitter even had to create a special carveout for “world leaders” in its terms of service to ensure he could remain on their platform, despite his constant bullying, threats of nuclear war with North Korea, spreading of racist conspiracy theories and personal attacks on law enforcement officials.

It hasn't helped: After years of benefiting from public goodwill, Big Tech is facing perhaps its first bout of dedicated, sustained criticism from the media and general public. It’s coming from all sides, not just from Trump and politicians like Ted Cruz and Kevin McCarthy, who say social media companies are “biased” because they occasionally take down vile and hateful content. Companies are also under fire from people who rightfully criticize their failure to respond to bots, Russian interference, harassment and general grime on their platforms.

I’ve written several of the significant laws that helped the internet flourish, and have fought for decades for sensible tech policies, so when it comes to debates over internet policy, this isn’t my first rodeo. For the purposes of the current debate, I propose two basic principles: First, that the government has no business regulating content online and, second, that the big tech companies should get serious about cleaning up the slime that is still too common on their platforms — not out of fear of government regulation, but because it’s both the right and the decent thing to do, morally and for their bottom line.

Many companies that want to be a platform for schools to communicate with students, artists with their fans or elected officials with their constituents already limit content like pornography. They do this because, while pornography is generally protected expression under our laws, users don’t want to encounter it while attempting to use their platform to share baby pics. Others choose to accommodate such content but take significant steps to ensure it’s only seen by of-age users who actively seek it out.

But too many platforms take a far lighter hand when it comes to hateful, harassing and radically indecent content. It’s should be their responsibility to their users, their shareholders and to society to clean up the muck that still is far too pervasive on platforms they promote as open and family-friendly.

Anyone is free to run 4chan or unmoderated message boards or start their own “conservative Facebook” — and they already have; the law protects the right of those sites to exist. But it’s ridiculous to say that the government should force Facebook and Twitter to host neo-Nazi leaders or people who harass the parents of dead children.

When I made this argument last week, it prompted accusations from the far-right that I was threatening to censor Twitter, or repeal Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which is the law that provides the legal foundations for social media. (From Wikipedia to Youtube to Instagram, these sites cannot exist without 230 protection.)

But in fact, I co-wrote Section 230 and have defended it for years. And I was one of only two senators (with Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.) to vote against the misguided Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act. That bill was advertised as preventing sex trafficking online when it passed earlier this year but, in practice, it has driven trafficking to darker corners of society where it is harder to fight. I strongly opposed efforts to pass that bill because I was concerned precisely of those unintended consequences.

So that is why I’m sounding an alarm for those tech CEOs who have been asleep at the wheel: They risk even more attacks, the loss of goodwill upon which they’ve relied and calls for regulation, if they don’t get serious about decency.

It is only a matter of time before the next effort comes to carve holes in Section 230 and undermine the legal foundation of their business. These attacks may start on either the left or the right — sometimes with support from both extremes — and they are a greater threat to the internet every day.

An alternative idea to gutting Section 230, floated by the Trump administration, would be to somehow force platforms to host or promote conservative content to correct alleged liberal bias. It’s a striking a bit of hypocrisy for people who usually rail against government regulation to now urge the government to create rules for exactly how private companies should run their businesses.

And, more to the point, it’s plainly unconstitutional for government to regulate speech and content to that extent outside the very narrow world of publicly-owned broadcast airwaves.

I oppose government regulation of content, and new holes in Section 230 for all these reasons and because — as we’ve seen for years — the knee-jerk answers that politicians come up with for tech problems would often make things worse.

These efforts are in the same vein as attacks on strong encryption that protects our health and financial information (not to mention our kids' locations). The urge to regulate internet content springs from the same instincts as proposals to let the government view individual’s web browsing history without a warrant.

You could fill a library with the history of politicians scoring easy points by proposing the kinds of ideas that can fire up their base, or that make a good soundbite. But if we want to create and maintain an internet that is good for innovation and a place where we want to spend time, both Big Tech and politicians need to try a whole lot harder.