This post originally appeared on Techdirt on 3/22/18.
Hold on tight to those memories of all the good things the Internet has brought. SESTA has just passed the Senate, and at this point it’s a clear legislative path to undermining Section 230, the law that has enabled all those good things the Internet has offered.
It is not entirely Facebook’s fault: opportunists from Hollywood saw it as a chance to weaken the innovation that weakens their antiquated grip over people’s creativity. Ill-informed celebrities, who understood absolutely nothing about the cause they professed to advocate for, pressed their bumper-sticker demands that something be done, even though that something is destructive to the very cause the bumper-stickers were for. Willfully ignorant members of Congress then bought into the bumper-sticker rhetoric, despite all the evidence they had about how destructive this law would be to those interests and online speech generally.
Even frequent innovation ally Senator Wyden joined the chorus mounting against the tech industry, lending credence to the idea that when it came to a law that would undermine the Internet, the Internet had it coming.
#Section230 is on the verge of collapse because the big internet companies have utterly failed to live up to the responsibility they were handed two decades ago.
— Ron Wyden (@RonWyden) March 21, 2018
With all due respect, that criticism is not fair. Setting aside that many of these companies didn’t even exist twenty years ago, we have never before lived in a world where we could all talk to each other. It makes no sense to punish the people who have enabled this gift simply because we haven’t quite figured out how best to manage it. We are but toddlers in Internet time, and just as we would not crush a toddler’s ability to learn to do better, it makes no sense to punish today’s Internet service providers, or future innovators, or speakers, simply because figuring out how to handle the promise of this global interconnectivity is hard. We cannot let the reactionary antipathy against Facebook mask difficult issues that need to be carefully teased apart before applying regulatory “solutions.”
But when we tally the score on whose fault today is, plenty can still be laid at Facebook’s door. Again, not all of its current troubles are necessarily of its own making: in addition to being square in the eye of the worst growing pains that computer-mediated communication can offer, it has also been misused, and even potentially illegally manipulated, by bad actors keen to exploit the inherent vulnerabilities presented by this shift from a world of physical scarcity to a world of digital plenty. Meanwhile doctoral theses in organizational theory could be written about the challenges faced by large companies, especially those that have grown so quickly, in reacting to the challenges their success has invited. In other words, we need to separate which expectations of the company are reasonable from those that are not necessarily fair to expect from an enterprise pioneering a new business that could not have even existed just a few years ago.
Yet while much of what Facebook does should be viewed charitably, it is not beyond criticism. To say it is like a bull in a china shop would be unfair to bulls, who at least seem to have some awareness of the chaos they leave in their wake as they throw their weight around. Whereas Facebook seems to have little insight into just what it is that it does, where it lives in the Internet ecosystem, and who is in there with it. As it blunders about, stoking outrage that makes people too upset to see the need for nuance in regulatory response, it also interferes with those advocating for that nuanced regulatory response. It is becoming very hard to trust Facebook as a partner in addressing the complex issues its business choices raise when the company itself seems to lack any coherent understanding of what those choices are. After all, what exactly is the business of Facebook? Is it to aggregate data, or to connect people and intermediate their speech? Or something else? These competing agendas antagonize users and cloud the regulatory waters, leading to overreactions like SESTA that end up hurting everyone. The bitter irony of SESTA, of course, is that it only punishes the good things Facebook does—the being a global platform facilitating speech and interpersonal connections around the world—that benefit our lives, and not those that give us pause. But it also makes sure that no one else will be able to come along and perform any of these functions any better.
Furthermore, it should not be forgotten that, as a matter of politics, Facebook allowed this regulatory travesty to happen. Its shocking endorsement of these dysfunctional policies undermined the resistance that the speakers and innovators were trying to mount against these policies that so that threaten them. Facebook may be foolish enough to believe it can endure the regulatory shift SESTA will bring, but even if it were correct, no one else can. Not even Facebook’s own users.
Today is a sad day for the future and all the speech, innovation, and interconnectivity we were counting on to help us confront the challenges of living together in this increasingly small world. There is plenty of blame to go around, but the oblivious insularity of one of the biggest actors in the policy space is a deserving recipient of much of it. Not only was it a lightning rod for regulatory outrage, not entirely undeservedly, but it then greased the skids for the worst of it, indifferent to the effects on others. It will surely suffer from its choices, but so will everyone else.