So it wasn’t an empty threat. President Trump did it. He signed an Executive Order which, in essence, seeks to change the law on platform immunity, as conferred by s.230, Communications Decency Act 1996.
It is doubtful the Executive Order will withstand a legal challenge. There is not only the obvious 1st Amendment point, the fact is Trump is trying to change the substantive law by fiat. Congress has to be involved in any alterations to substantive laws of this kind. By the time they got around to it, if they ever did, the Congressional and Presidential elections would be over and who knows where things will be? Not me.
I am not going to waste words on stating the obvious about the President of the United States. Let’s just say I am sure I will not be alone in finding the speed with which he moved on this topic was in such marked contrast to his lethargic approach on a broad range of issues concerning children’s rights and children’s safety on the internet that, well, words don’t fail me but what’s the point?
There is a great deal that is wrong with s 230. It does need amending but the crudely political and partisan way the President has engaged with the topic means in the weeks ahead there is going to be a great deal of sound and fury which will signify nothing much of consequence. The dust needs to settle before it is clear how, if at all, the children’s lobby can best intervene.
I have no problem with social media platforms maintaining their immunity providing they can demonstrate that, mindful of the available technology, they took all reasonable and proportionate steps to eliminate or reduce breaches of their terms and conditions of service, in particular in respect of behaviour harmful to children, and doubly so where that behaviour is anyway illegal.
On the question of responsibility for fact-checking and truthfulness, children’s groups do have a dog in that fight. We all want children to grow up aware of the importance of basing their judgements and actions on accurate information in respect of events or matters which impact on their own and other people’s lives.
Given the huge dominance of the internet as a source of information, perhaps particularly in the lives of young people, allowing or being indifferent towards algorithmic pulls towards sensationalised, distorted rubbish or downright lies cannot be a good starting point. Internet companies have built these systems which reach into all our lives. They cannot now turn their backs on what follows on from that.
How you solve this problem is not easy or obvious but I absolutely do not think it is acceptable for a company to argue that just because someone claims to be a politician they can say whatever they like on their platform. “All it needs for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing” (Edmund Burke).