The Impact of Section 230 on Social Media Regulation: Vasant Dhar Appears on the CBS Mornings Podcast to Discuss

In May 2020, tragedy struck when Patrick Underwood, a federal security guard, was shot and killed by alleged anti-government extremists while guarding a courthouse in Oakland, CA. The two men accused met on Facebook, and the victim’s sister believes the platform is responsible for her brother’s death. In turn, Angela Underwood Jacobs recently filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Facebook (now Meta Platforms), but who is truly liable in a situation such as this? Co-Director of Graduate Studies for the CDS PhD Program and host of the Brave New World podcast Vasant Dhar appeared on the CBS Mornings Podcast to weigh in on this issue with host Tony Dokoupil.

In their discussion, Vasant raises the uncomfortable fact that we had no idea how the internet and technology would evolve in 1996, when Section 230 was enacted — a law that generally gives web platforms immunity from liability when it comes to third-party content. “When we talk about the social network, we have to remember that it didn’t exist before Facebook,” Vasant reminds us. He goes on to succinctly break down the evolution of the internet and how we have arrived to where we are now. The internet began with Web 1.0, a fundamentally permissionless arena that allowed for any user to publish freely, but wasn’t particularly useful for finding and accessing information. Somewhere along the way, as we transitioned into the now highly useful Web 2.0, we forgot to question what the rules of the internet should be. For example, we forgot to ask the major tech platforms that are now so deeply ingrained in our day-to-day lives some basic questions, like: Will you be neutral? Will you be transparent? Will there be an appeals process if you post something incorrect or harmful to individuals?

The real question now is: what do we do about this? Vasant suggests that inspiration can be drawn from how the financial services industry handled regulation over time — several mistakes were made but the industry eventually succeeded in implementing some basic rules, like don’t manipulate markets, don’t favor some customers’ trades over others’, etc. He proposes that we first reflect on how we’ve arrived where we are, revisit the larger questions we truly care about, and then leverage data to find those answers. What are the current risks these platforms pose to society and how do we effectively address them? Overall, Vasant is hopeful about reform. “I think our lawmakers have a better sense of what the problem is (now) than they did a couple of years ago… and the first step in the solution is understanding the problem.”

You can listen to this episode “How a 1996 law shields social media companies from liability” on the CBS Mornings Apple Podcast page. To hear more of what Vasant has to say on a variety of topics, please visit the Brave New World podcast website.

By Ashley C. McDonald

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