Sorry, tech companies are publishers and it's time to stop protecting them

Bad internet
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The US Supreme Court has the opportunity this week to all but reset the Internet, stripping away protections crafted in the earliest days of the World Wide Web, when the height of search was Alta Vista, 640x480 was considered acceptable video quality, and it was still cool to have an AOL email address.

Justices will hear a case revolving around a young woman killed in a 2015 terrorist attack in Paris. The family of the girl is suing YouTube, which they say not only hosted radicalizing ISIS videos but actively pushed them to potential recruits. 

Normally, YouTube, and its parent company Google, would be shielded from such a suit thanks to the Telecommunications Act of 1996, more specifically, Section 230 which, among other things, says, "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" and, under Civil liability, "No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be held liable..."

In broad strokes, the interpretation has been that a platform like YouTube is not a publisher in the way that The New York Times is, and therefore can't be held liable for the nature of the content it hosts and shares.

However, the highest court in the US could find against YouTube/Google and officially change the rules of the game.

It was a different time

Back when the law was written, online service providers and information services had a lot more in common with telecommunication companies than they did publishers and media companies.

All of them were connecting people to online stores of news and information, virtually none of it researched or written by them.

What supported those platforms were all the online banner ads that appeared around the info. There was no targeting to speak of because the early Internet didn’t know who you were or what you were looking at. What they said back then, “on the internet nobody knows you’re a dog,” was essentially true.

Except now the Internet knows that and more. And instead of an unfiltered view of online information through search or on any site, the information and media you see are all tailored to your activities and interests.

Give 'em what they want

The introduction of algorithms changed these platforms from being passive purveyors of content to being programmers who respond to your perceived interests.

At times, it could be a passing interest like hiking or spinning clay pots. Or you could be having a bad day and start looking up angry, violent videos. The system identifies that interest, no matter how fleeting, and in an effort to keep you on-site and seeing more ads (read: more money) it feeds you more of the same.

Looked at one way, your Internet experience suddenly reflects your own and you think everyone is feeling the same way and maybe doing the same things. You took the first step, but the system paved the road ahead of you. It’s not just hosting the content or giving you access, the algorithm is actively pushing the content your way.

It’s hard to argue, then, that Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, YouTube, and others are still disinterested third parties.

YouTube did not produce that violent video, any more than TikTok made all those posts about the blackout challenge, but what they built and programmed chooses what content to put in front of you. That part, at least, is like a publisher and not simply a pipe opening up access to the information super highway.

When I look back at Section 230, I see it’s built on the premise that a free and unfettered Internet is a net-positive thing and online companies cannot be held responsible for what other people put on their platforms.

However, the desire not to hamper the growth, expansion, and access to the Internet lacked key pieces of foresight: how the economics of the Internet would change, and how the rise of algorithms that program our content experience would alter not just what we see and experience but who we are.

Multiple generations of TV watchers somehow did not teach us that what we watch for hours at a time could alter our brain chemistry. Really, that’s what the Internet is. It’s TV on steroids.

We think we have control over what we see, as we did with TV ("change the channel"), but when it comes to the internet, there’s an asymmetrical relationship between the audience and the programmer.

It’s hard to argue, then, that Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, YouTube, and others are still disinterested third parties

We might choose which site or platform to visit and even a piece of content or two, but much of what we experience comes to us via the unseen hand of an algorithm and unlike TV’s human programmers, the algorithm knows nothing about the emotional lives of people, just what makes people keep ringing the bell for another drop of dopamine.

Where Facebook Google, Twitter, and others have failed is in putting these algorithms ahead of powerful and more protective content controls. To be sure, they’ve all gotten better about it but not before the horse was well out of the barn and trotting through our collective psyches.

Removing the protection Section 230 provides is the first step in forcing tech companies to take responsibility for the content produced on and accessed through their platforms. It will force them to do something now or risk endless lawsuits that, while they may not lose many of them, will cost them millions.

I know, too, that redesignating these companies as publishers will have a chilling effect, but we might need the temporary deep freeze to reset things and regain control of our content- and information-consumption lives.

Lance Ulanoff
Editor At Large

A 38-year industry veteran and award-winning journalist, Lance has covered technology since PCs were the size of suitcases and “on line” meant “waiting.” He’s a former Lifewire Editor-in-Chief, Mashable Editor-in-Chief, and, before that, Editor in Chief of and Senior Vice President of Content for Ziff Davis, Inc. He also wrote a popular, weekly tech column for Medium called The Upgrade.

Lance Ulanoff makes frequent appearances on national, international, and local news programs including Live with Kelly and Ryan, the Today Show, Good Morning America, CNBC, CNN, and the BBC.