INTERNET reform that once seemed all but impossible now seems inevitable.
Most Americans have concerns about the size, reach and business practices of Big Tech from Facebook to Amazon to Apple, and so do the smarter members of Congress regardless of party.
The question now isn’t whether there should be reform, but rather what reform should look like.
There are many directions reform could go, and many watching believe the right direction is tackling Big Tech’s size and supposedly anti-competitive practices.
We don’t think so. Technology shifts fast. Tech companies, especially those that are basically web-based applications versus software or hardware companies, could be undermined more quickly than many suppose.
No, true reform needs to focus on the way U.S. law allowed the internet to grow. And that means changing how Big Tech has been able to take advantage of the law to create outrageous scale even as its products have metastasized social and political division, helped manipulate elections, spread child sex imagery and facilitated online fraud.
Whatever the outcome of the November election, reforming the internet with a particular eye toward how the internet and especially how social media function must be a primary goal of the government—without a partisan agenda.
At least one bill is now on the table that is, at last, a serious effort. It comes from Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., who recently authored a bill to have the Chinese-based app TikTok removed from government phones. That wise legislation passed the Senate unanimously.
Now Hawley is urging Congress to finally reform what is known as the founding clause of the internet: Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act. That law frees internet platforms from liability for material disseminated through their sites or on their platforms.
Hawley’s bill would remove Section 230 immunity from internet companies that track users, create profiles and serve up targeted ads in what’s known as behavioral advertising.
We have long argued that social media companies in particular should not have carte blanche to disseminate the libelous and criminal material that pollutes their sites. But those companies, in the impossible arrogance borne of their immunity, have done little to correct their bad actions, even as their coffers ballooned through ad sales while traditional publishers, retailers and much of the creative economy withered. Only of late, and under the most intense pressure, are these companies offering fig leaf efforts at self-reform.
It’s too little, too late. As Hawley said, “Big Tech’s manipulative advertising regime comes with a massive hidden price tag for consumers while providing almost no return to anyone but themselves.”
Hawley’s bill isn’t perfect. Considerations need to be made for how search engines should function, for example. Perhaps by abandoning behavioral advertising.
Perfect or not, the bill is a start in a real debate that this country needs to have, outside of partisan considerations, of how we tame the monster we created.
—The Dallas Morning News
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