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Internet Giants at the Crossroads: Political Criticism, Section 230, and Neoliberalism



Twenty-five years later, the US Internet industry regulation has come to a crossroads, and neoclassical liberalism has also come to an end.This is not like a congressional hearing, but more like a political critique. Twitter CEO Dorsey, Facebook CEO Zuckerberg and Google CEO Pichai, the helms of the three largest social networking sites in the United States, participated in the U.S. Senate hearing remotely on Wednesday.

Political Criticism Before the Election

Sina Technology Zheng Jun from Silicon Valley, USA

Political Criticism Before the Election

This is not like a congressional hearing, but more like a political critique. Twitter CEO Dorsey, Facebook CEO Zuckerberg and Google CEO Pichai, the helms of the three largest social networking sites in the United States, participated in the U.S. Senate hearing remotely on Wednesday. They sat blankly in front of the screen, responding to questions and cross-examinations from the senators, and endured criticism and criticism from Republicans. Despite their efforts to keep their distance, their social networking sites are inevitably involved in cruel political struggles.

This hearing was hosted by the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee. The topic of discussion was “Does the 230 exemption clause encourage the bad behavior of tech giants?” However, the U.S. election has entered the countdown, and the Senate has announced an adjournment on Monday. The plans are gone. The Republicans, who hold the majority of seats in the Senate, are holding a hearing at this time. Obviously, they are not really wanting to discuss regulatory reforms on Internet platforms, but instead take the opportunity to put pressure on social media platforms. The Democrats clearly oppose the “Sham” hearing for political purposes, thinking that Republicans want to intimidate Internet platforms before the election.

In a total of four hours of hearing time, Dorsey answered 58 questions, Zuckerberg answered 49, and Pichai was only asked 22 times. It can also be seen from the number of issues that the focus of this hearing is on two social media platforms with huge political influence. The concerns of the two parties are even more distinct: Republicans asked 69 questions about content censorship, while Democrats only mentioned it 12 times. Democrats asked a total of 28 questions about false information, and Republicans only mentioned it 7 times.

Republicans have been complaining about these three Internet platforms for a long time. In the past few years, they have been accusing Silicon Valley Internet companies of political bias, double standards in censorship, and restricting, deleting or even banning conservative online speech. However, these three Internet platforms do not consider themselves to be Censorship, but call them Moderation. They also explained their content review standards, including not to pass false information, not to incite violence and hatred, not to disclose personal privacy, etc.

This summer, Twitter labeled Trump’s controversial tweets as “fact-checking required” and “inciting violence” and even folded and hidden. The Republican president became furious and publicly declared that he would retaliate against Twitter. In contrast, Facebook has been slow in handling Trump’s controversial content, which has brought a lot of public opinion pressure on Zuckerberg. However, the fuse that ignited the anger of the Republicans this time was an article last week about the alleged corruption of the son of the Democratic presidential candidate Biden.

The source of this breaking news article is Trump’s personal lawyer Giuliani, and there are many doubts in the content. Giuliani found the tabloid “New York Post” under Trump’s ally Murdoch to publish it, but many mainstream media refused to follow up the report. After the article went online, Twitter and Facebook unanimously chose to block it to prevent this controversial report that may affect the results of the election from spreading on their platforms. Seeing that negative revelations that may affect the outcome of the election have been blocked by the two major platforms in a row, Republicans are furious.

The hottest moment of this hearing came from Texas Senator Ted Cruz’s roar. He even used cruel words like “What the hell” directly to Dorsey, questioning Dorsey’s power to conduct content censorship. On the other side of the screen, Dorsey, who is very individual, has a shiny nose ring and a long beard, like a traditional hippie walking down the streets of San Francisco. He blankly explained the content review standards of the Twitter platform to angry Republicans. The tagging was because of the need to provide more background information, and the restriction of Biden’s son’s black material was because of a violation of the information privacy policy.

Republicans do not accept this explanation, and they believe that Silicon Valley is helping Biden to be elected. Even if the two major platforms emphasize that they will decide whether to delete contentious content based on facts, this attitude makes Republicans dissatisfied. Republican Senator Mike Lee of Utah stated directly that fact checking is also a content review. Prior to this, the two major social media deleted a large number of conspiracy theories that incited conservative voters, including all platforms banning all content and discussion groups related to the QAnon conspiracy theory.

The current attitudes of lawmakers from both parties to social media supervision are the opposite of those two years ago. Hillary Clinton, who always took the lead in polls in 2016, unexpectedly lost the election unexpectedly. Democrats have always believed that various conspiracy theories and political rumors raging on social media are an important factor, accusing Twitter and Facebook of unshirkable responsibility. After the Cambridge Analytica incident of Facebook leaking user data was exposed in 2018, Zuckerberg participated in a total of seven and a half hours of hearings in both houses of Congress. That time, it was the Democrats who bombarded social media with anger, while the Republicans were gloating. He was playing soy sauce on the side, and he was even in the mood to help Zuckerberg. Cruz, who values ​​ideological struggles, has always played a hawkish role.

230 Disclaimer clause facing revision

In yesterday’s hearing, Dorsey and Zuckerberg both promised to promote more transparent information algorithms, review standards, and content decisions on the two platforms in the future. But this hearing is like the epitome of the political melee of the past few years. With the increasing division of American society, social media has become the main battlefield between the two factions, and it has become increasingly difficult for them to maintain a balance between the two factions. No matter what they do, there will be dissatisfaction on one side.

In the past few years, the Republican Party has continued to criticize the two major social media for prejudice and excessive censorship, while the Democratic Party has continuously accused the two major online platforms for not doing enough to prevent false information and hateful content. In the past three years, Zuckerberg has participated in a congressional hearing for the fifth time, and Dorsey and Pichai have participated in a congressional hearing for the third time. Just next month, they will participate in the hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee on the platform’s handling of election-related content. Fortunately, because of the epidemic, these Silicon Valley billionaires can sit comfortably at home and answer questions, instead of spending 12 hours traveling back and forth between the east and the west.

Although most of this hearing was the Republican venting their anger, and there was not much time for serious discussions on revising the regulatory legislation, Section 230 is a key issue that the US Internet industry cannot avoid in the future. Social media has become the core of the bipartisan struggle, and the revision of Section 230 is the most effective means for the two politicians to threaten Internet giants. Or many West and Zuckerberg have to face a cruel fact: no matter what the outcome of this general election, this legal umbrella may have come to the time to amend or even revoke.

Although the two parties are tit-for-tat on most policies, they have reached a consensus on at least one issue: Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Standards Act should be revised. The Republicans and Democrats have completely different starting points, but they both hope to use this to put pressure on Internet platforms and obtain political and public opinion results that are beneficial to them. The Republicans want to prevent Internet companies from prejudice against conservative speech, while the Democrats want Internet platforms to increase their efforts to deal with rumors and hate speech.

Internet Giants at the Crossroads: Political Criticism, Section 230, and Neoliberalism 1

Clause 230 came from 1995 when the Internet was just starting. It was drafted by two congressmen from California and Oregon, and it was approved by Congress the following year. “Any provider or user of interactive computer services should not be regarded as the publisher or spokesperson of any information provided by another information content provider.” This clause actually includes two meanings: Internet companies need not be Third-party information is responsible, and the content posted by users on the platform has nothing to do with the platform; Internet companies are not responsible for their actions to delete platform content in good faith, and they have the right to delete content posted by users in accordance with the audit standards.

This legal provision with only 26 English words has created a tolerant regulatory environment for the rapid development of the Internet industry in the United States and paved the way for the subsequent rise of social media. In the past 24 years, this legal provision has escorted Internet companies time and time again, retiring from numerous defamation and fraud-related lawsuits. In addition, Internet companies are also able to delete content and accounts they deem inappropriate in accordance with their own rules, avoiding user lawsuits.

When talking about the significance of this clause, Eric Goldman, a professor of law at Santa Clara University in Silicon Valley, told Sina Technology that clause 230 actually created the modern Internet. But after supporting and protecting the growth of the Internet industry, this exemption clause has also been constantly criticized. In the past few years, whether it is large Internet platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, or small Internet platforms such as 4Chan and Gab, there have been a lot of inappropriate content such as hate speech, false information, conspiracy theories, and even terrorists on social platforms. Preview and live broadcast of shooting cases. These extreme content put social media under greater regulatory pressure than ever before.

This year’s discussion on the revision of the 230 exemption clause was directly promoted by President Trump. In May of this year, after Twitter consecutively labeled Trump’s controversial tweets, Trump issued an executive order requiring the government to restrict the 230 Clause immunity protection. The U.S. Department of Justice subsequently issued a draft opinion on the revision of Section 230, and several Republican senators also proposed a draft legislation restricting Section 230, which clearly stated that the exemption clause should be linked to the “good faith” of Internet companies. The subtext is that if there is a bias on the Internet platform, it can be held accountable.

The Democratic Party has a different understanding of this. They believe that Internet companies, especially social media, have a responsibility to work hard to remove harmful information on the platform. If the Democrats succeed in retaking the two houses of Congress in a week, they will dominate the legislative process. The specific changes to the 230 exemption clause will be determined by the Democratic Party, and the current unilateral draft legislation proposed by Republican senators will also be invalidated. How the next Congress will advance the revision of the 230 exemption clause directly depends on the results of the general election on November 3 (all the House of Representatives re-elected, and the Senate re-elected a third).

Although the Internet giants are wealthy and control the US technology industry, the three billionaires are in a weak position of being regulated by members of Congress who hold political power. Zuckerberg chose to retreat and support Congress to re-enact the law; Dorsey and Pichai called on lawmakers to consider carefully. They warned that the revocation of the 230 exemption clause may bring unexpected negative effects: in order to avoid legal risks. , Internet platforms will censor content more frequently. And only large companies can bear the cost of compliance and litigation, and small Internet companies will be overwhelmed.

In fact, the US Congress has fine-tuned the 230 exemption clause. In the past two years, the US Congress has conducted multiple hearings and discussions on Section 230. The Anti-Sex Trafficking Act passed in 2018 opened a gap. This law clearly stipulates that Internet companies have the responsibility to report and remove sex trafficking (trafficking in human beings for sexual exploitation) on online platforms, otherwise they will face penalties in relevant laws . Although the Democrats and Republicans have opposing positions on content review, they both agree that Internet platforms need to take responsibility for the sale of illegal drugs such as opioids and child pornography. Legislation in this area has received cross-party support and is already in progress.

Neoliberalism comes to an end

Regardless of the outcome of this general election, the US Internet industry has reached a crossroads of regulatory reform. In addition to the possible revision of the 230 exemption clause, the US Internet giant is also facing antitrust investigations and lawsuits jointly promoted by the two parties. Perhaps an indisputable fact is that in the past 25 years, the golden age of the free development of the US Internet industry has ended, and the neoclassical liberalism (Neoliberalism) that has dominated the US economy and Internet regulation has come to an end.

In the past few decades, no matter who came to power in the two parties, their economic policies generally held similar ideas: deregulation, encourage competition, promote globalization, allow the market to regulate itself, and allow enterprises to have the greatest freedom. Although the 2008 financial crisis caused the US government to reinforce supervision in the financial sector, it has always maintained a stance of let go of development in the Internet economy. Relaxing the restrictions on corporate political donations is to accelerate economic power to affect the political field.

The rise of the Internet economy is a symbol of the success of neoclassical liberalism, and the 230 exemption clause is part of the neoclassical liberalism ideology. The U.S. government presided over funding research on Internet technology, then opened up this field, stimulated the influx of private capital for commercial development, encouraged technological innovation and entrepreneurial opportunities, and created new economic industries and employment opportunities. Many Internet giants such as Yahoo, Google, Amazon, and Facebook were born in this technology boom, and they dominated almost all countries in the world.

Over two decades, the Internet economy has become the leader of the US economy. The major Internet giants not only have a market value of more than one trillion U.S. dollars, but also have annual revenues of more than 100 billion U.S. dollars. They completely overwhelm all traditional industry giants and control and impact every industry in the economy. Even when the new crown epidemic caused the US economy to fall into recession, the traditional economy was generally in recession, and millions of people were unemployed and plunged into poverty, the performance of the US Internet giants still maintained steady growth, technology stocks led the steady rise of the US stock market, and the personal wealth of the super-rich Expansively.

On the other hand, the social influence of Internet giants is also impossible to ignore. They control the data of each Internet user, determine the information they can see, and subtly influence political public opinion. Under the banner of protecting freedom of speech, social media has long ignored the extreme, anti-intellectual, and hateful content on laissez-faire platforms, which indirectly stimulated the rise of nationalism and populism in the American political arena. During this new crown epidemic, various online public opinions against masks and epidemic control flooded social networks, and even Bill Gates and Dr. Fauci were conspired into evil incarnations.

Trump, who held high the banner of nationalism, came to power, which itself was the failure of neoclassical liberalism, which resulted in the worsening of social and economic imbalances in the United States. His unexpected election in 2016 was mainly attributed to the collective turn of the blue-collar class in the rust zone of the Great Lakes region, which pushed Trump to be elected through the electoral vote system despite the disparity in popular vote. In the process of economic globalization and industrial transfer, these voters have become economically disadvantaged groups that have been abandoned and left out. The unregulated Internet makes it easier for these groups to accept xenophobia and anti-intellectual conspiracy theories.

After his election, Trump also spared no effort to introduce trade protectionism, through administrative intervention measures, to try to change the process of globalization and stabilize his voter’s basics. Cracking down on Internet giants is also his main method of diverting conflicts. Trump has spared no effort to emphasize that e-commerce giant Amazon is responsible for the depression of the traditional American retail industry.

An obvious trend is that the 2016 US election is a watershed in the regulatory environment of the US Internet industry. It was the many problems exposed in that election that caused the society to pay attention to the influence of social media in the formation of political public opinion, especially the huge destructive power of false information and hateful content to society. The hostile attitudes of Trump and conservatives towards Internet giants such as Google, Amazon and Facebook are the direct driving force of the tide of anti-monopoly supervision of technology giants.

A week later, whether Trump or Biden wins the election, whether right-wing conservative nationalism or center-left reformism comes to power, the US national ideology will continue to drift away from neoclassical liberalism. Although the starting points of the two factions are completely different, they have the same stance on the supervision of Internet giants: cracking down on monopolistic behavior, strengthening the review of speech, and no longer letting the market decide on its own.