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How much reform does Big Tech really want?

November 19, 2020, 2:32 PM UTC

The CEOs of Facebook and Twitter agree with lawmakers on one thing: Congress should consider updating Section 230, a law that protects them from being held liable for what users post on their services.

Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey reiterated their stances at Tuesday’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, where they were grilled for several hours over everything from elections to misinformation to censorship. But, perhaps unsurprisingly, the executives’ suggestions for Section 230 reform sound a lot like what they already do or have been planning to do. 

Zuckerberg said companies should be required to report on the harmful content on their services as well as what they did to address it. But, as he said on Tuesday, Facebook already does this in its quarterly transparency reports, the latest of which will be published on Thursday. Dorsey said companies should have to provide more transparency around why they make decisions to label or remove specific posts as well as provide users with the choice to switch on or off certain algorithms—but Twitter already does that to an extent too. 

“They’re under political and public relations pressure to say they’re willing to entertain more government involvement in their businesses,” said Paul Barrett, deputy director of the New York University Stern Center for Business and Human Rights. “They’re talking mostly about transparency, which is good, but it won’t necessarily require these companies to do business in a different way.”

Barrett thinks companies should go even further and explain why algorithms are flagging, amplifying, or removing specific content, even if that’s somewhat hard to trace. “These guys always say these algorithms don’t favor sensationalist material,” he said. “Then what does it favor, and how does it favor it?”

Anurag Lal, formerly a member of a task force at the Federal Communications Commission, believes that Section 230 reform should also include some kind of penalty to hold companies accountable for failures. Industry leaders, he suggested, should work with lawmakers to determine best practices and accountability measures for large companies like Facebook and Twitter.

“Today, it’s everything goes,” he said. “Where the platform has been abused … there has to be some kind of liability.”

But Lal added Section 230 was created for a reason, and it should still exist for that very same reason: innovation. To avoid stifling the creation and growth of new Internet companies, lawmakers should limit new requirements to large companies and refrain from the knee-jerk reaction of revoking it all together.

“We cannot let it get politicized and torn down,” he said. “It’s not a zero-sum game.” 

Danielle Abril
@DanielleDigest
danielle.abril@fortune.com

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NEWSWORTHY

COVID concerns. More than 200 of Facebook’s contract content moderators criticized the social media company and their respective employers for requiring a return to the office amid the coronavirus pandemic. The contractors on Wednesday sent a letter to CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, and executives of their respective firms arguing that their health is being sacrificed for Facebook’s business. They also asked the companies for the ability to work from home, hazard pay, and better healthcare and mental health services.

Deepfakes bare all. Law enforcement authorities and regulators are investigating messaging app Telegram after an A.I. bot on its service continues to generate fake nude images of women. The news comes one month after researchers discovered the bot on Telegram that uses a tool to create deepfake images of real women without their clothes. The researchers reported the bot to the app, which has already posted digitally altered images of more than 100,000 women, but it still remains.

Slow burn. Apple has agreed to pony up $113 million to settle an investigation of its previous practice of slowing the speeds of older iPhones to preserve battery life. More than 30 states were investigating Apple’s the claim that the company throttled the speeds when it released new phones. Apple also is required to disclose how it's managing the battery life of its devices, as part of the agreement.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

The California Partners Project, a nonprofit founded by California's first lady Jennifer Siebel Newsom, recently explored how children are dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, during which school and social lives are largely online. Researchers conducted interviews with 46 California teens between the ages of 14 and 17. One of their findings reinforces the concerns of child and mental health advocates, who have long been worried about the addictive nature of social media.

"Even as they say they suffer headaches, poor sleep, and exhaustion, teens feel the consequences of being 'addicted' to their phones and social media as too mild to matter or warrant a change in behavior. However, these times of instability and emotional frailty can be breeding grounds for the development of destructive habits," the report reads.

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BEFORE YOU GO

Though watching Charlie Brown classics was never really a tradition in my family, there has always been something comforting about randomly finding them on TV during the holidays.

So I was a little saddened when I heard Apple+ bought the rights to Peanuts content earlier this year, since I don't have the service. Luckily for all of us, a new deal between Apple and PBS means A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving and A Charlie Brown Christmas will be headed to public television again this year. Hooray! Christmas is saved!