Only giant internet firms may be able to comply with one-size-fits-all rules

Publication Type: 
Other Writing
Publication Date: 
May 10, 2018

If you paid attention to Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony before Congress last month, you might have gotten the impression that the internet consists entirely of titanic, California-based companies like Twitter, Facebook and Google. Congress is right to call these companies to account for outsize harms like disclosing personal data about many millions of users. But it is very wrong to act as though these companies are representative of the whole internet.

When Congress makes rules with only these massive platforms in mind — and at the negotiating table — we get laws that only they can live with.

That’s particularly the case for laws that expose companies to steep liability if they don’t find and eliminate unlawful content posted by their users. In his testimony, Zuckerberg seemed to welcome such laws, claiming that Facebook will employ 20,000 security experts and content moderators by the end of the year and work on deploying sophisticated artificial intelligence technologies to thoroughly scrub Facebook of objectionable material. Companies like Facebook and YouTube may be able to hire thousands of moderators and build a $60 million content filter to comply with such obligations. But smaller platforms competing for the same users cannot.

Neither can the as-yet-unknown innovators building the next Snapchat or Instagram.

And, critically, neither can the untold numbers of ordinary businesses, nonprofits and schools that don’t think of themselves as internet companies but also face liability under such laws.

Politicians may not notice when a Las Vegas news site shuts down its comment forums, a Houston startup fails to get funding or a corner cafe turns off its Wi-Fi. But the rest of us suffer the consequences.

And one obvious consequence is to further entrench the handful of enormous companies that can afford to hire thousands of moderators and litigate or settle expensive lawsuits.

Congress’ shortsightedness in this regard became embarrassingly clear with the recent passage of the Allowing States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA). The bill, which President Trump signed into law, has a goal that everyone agrees with: combatting online sex trafficking. But the bill itself is ambiguous, and no one really knows what platforms need to do to comply.

According to some of FOSTA’s supporters, sites that want to avoid liability should actively screen every piece of content posted by users — something that no small platform can afford to do.

Read the full piece at the San Francisco Chronicle