The End of a Disinformation Nation – Or a Big Brother Society?

JustSociale’s CEO Sarah Liberty Reflects on the Proposed Reforms to Section 230 and Last Week’s Hill Hearings

One week ago, the three biggest players in tech – Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Twitter’s Jack Dorsey and Google’s Sundar Pichai, fronted a US House of Representatives House Energy and Commerce hearing called Joint Hearing: “Disinformation Nation: Social Media’s Role in Promoting Extremism and Misinformation”. The hearing related to the proposed changes to the Section 230 laws originally called for by Donald Trump, which were designed to address the spread of misinformation during the Covid pandemic and the presidential election. 

The reforms were intended to improve the ways online platforms take action when it comes to the moderation and the spread of harmful information. Facebook, Twitter and Google have all opposed them, yet suggested alternative reforms in their place. 

I have to admit that, whilst I acknowledge and have some concerns about the enormous amount of power that tech giants have over the flow of information, I don’t believe Trump’s proposed changes to the Internet law- which currently provides a level of legal exemption for digital platforms relating to the liability of what users post to them – would ensure they are held to greater account and are the answer. 

Why? Because freedom of speech – which the proposed reforms to Section 230 could potentially limit – is a human rights issue. 

As stated by the Australian Human Rights Commission, In 1966, The UN General Assembly adopted the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and in it Article 19 states that “everyone holds the right to hold opinions without interference”, “everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression”, which includes the “freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice”.

Article 19 also proclaims that the right to freedom of expression carries “special duties and responsibilities, including respect of the rights or reputations of others and the protection of national security or of public order, or of public health or morals”.

Whilst the Australian Constitution does not explicitly protect freedom of expression, the High Court has held that an implied freedom of political communication exists and serves as a freedom from government moderation.

Returning to the hearing on the Hill, whilst supporters of the reforms believe that the tech giants are not doing enough to stop the spread of misinformation and hate speech, Zuckerberg, Dorsey and Pichai have all argued that they could significantly erode free speech. 

Whilst hate speech and the spread of misinformation are certainly of great concern to me – particularly because it impacts minority communities in Australia including the LGBTQ+ community, Indigenous Australians, CALD Australians, and rural Australians – who lack equal and/or free access to the Internet and social media, I do believe and hold hope that Facebook, Google and Twitter are effectively working to address these critical issues.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has proposed other reforms to the law, saying that companies should have immunity from liability if they follow best practices for removing damaging material from their platforms.

“Instead of being granted immunity, platforms should be required to demonstrate that they have systems in place for identifying unlawful content and removing it.”

Facebook has stated previously that it has processes in place to address unlawful content, and works towards a high standard of alerting processes and timeliness of response.

Google’s Pichai stated that “without Section 230, platforms would either over-filter content or not be able to filter content at all.” Google has instead proposed developing content policies that are clear and accessible, so that people are notified when their content is removed and given the opportunity to appeal the decision.

Twitter’s Dorsey, as reported by The Guardian, suggested an open protocol shared by tech platforms in order to promote more transparency around how content is moderated. He also suggested that Twitter would open its moderation operations up for review by external researchers. 

If all three tech platforms are held accountable and their recommendations for changes to the proposed reform are enacted, then I believe that their propositions will see greater trust returned to the social media giants, and the responsible freedom of speech and resulting flow of information better protected. 

The only other option would be that platforms restrict what people can say entirely in order to avoid legal liability – and that would limit free speech, which is a cornerstone of our human rights. 

When our online human rights are no different to our offline human rights, my concern is that if the proposed reforms to section 230 go ahead, then the restrictions on our freedom of speech – especially if they flow on to Australia – could potentially erode the spread of responsible and respectful information, the sharing of ideas and positive human connection. And that is not the kind of big brother society that I want to live in. 

What happens next and how might it make waves internationally? We’ll have to stay tuned. Currently there are no more set hearing dates, but the House financial services committee previously this year said that there would be more to come – so I am sure the three tech leaders will be facing a further one or two again soon.

Sarah Liberty, JustSociale CEO

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