Should the Big Tech bow down to regulation?

An analysis into the famous Section 230, EARN IT act and how the current landscape of social media challenges the very fabric of society and democracy

Posted by Siddharth Balyan on October 31, 2020 · 7 mins read

The internet has come a long way, from a research tool used by a few hundred scientists and reasearchers in the 1960s and 1970s, to a publically available forum of information and discussion open for the people who wanted access to it till the early 1990s, to a technology which poses challenges to many facets of our society now that 4.6 billion people have access to it.

With such exponential progress in the internet and technology and the rise of various industries and monopolies it brought along with it, there were bound to be multiple changes as to how we view the internet, and our online identities. US President Donald Trump’s executive order to “regulate” social media is one such example. To understand the amendments to the famous Section 230 of the US Code, we must first backtrack to 1995 and the creation of the law which basically gave birth to the modern internet.

Section 230 of the U.S Code lays down the foundation of the two golden rules of the internet that we know of now:

  1. You can post anything you want, wherever you want online, and
  2. The platform hosting your content can take down whatever it doesn’t like.

These two rules were formed to free the internet companies of any responsibilities of what their users post and do on their platforms. The hosting platforms are free from any legal repurcussions and can choose to moderate content however they like. This allowed internet startups and investors the confidence to open their platformss to users without any liability for anything their users might say or do online and also encouraged to take a hands on approach in moderating their platform content.

These may sound terrible, but without Section 230, online platforms would not open up to users at all, or they’d just not moderate content to prevent them from being liable. One can have different opinions on this law, but no one can disagree that big tech giants like Facebook, Google and Amazon would not exist if there liable for anything and anything they were to post, search, or buy and sell online. And with this, our modern internet was shaped and is responsible for everything you may love or hate about social media and the internet.

Cut to 2020 where social media giants are bigger than ever and Facebook refers to itself, not as an internet company, but “something between a telecommunications company and a newspaper”, and Section 230 is about to go under a reform and this has been brewing for quite soime time now.

Eliminating Abusive and Rampant Neglect of Interactive Technologies Act (EARN IT) has been proposed, which ties the liability protection granted by Section 230 to meeting certain standards. This act aims to hold the big tech responsible for the content hosted on their platforms under certain cirsumstances, though skepticists believe that, if not done right, this may have unintended and unforeseen consequences. It is believed by many tech professionals that this change could have the ulterior motive of weakening encryption and forcing backdoors in certain services.

But how do these landscape changes affect India?

Greater calls for regulation of social media companies in India have been made in the recent years, where Twitter has been criticized multiple times for spread of hate speech, Facebook harbours fake news campaigns which are known to topple governments and WhatsApp was slammed for failing to curb fake messages. The list goes on and on. India, with its large population of Internet using youngsters is in an extremely unique situation. When left to their own, the big tech are known to incapable of battling against fake news and hate speech.

This, in turn calls for government regulation, evidence of which is all around. Giving governments the power to regulate and control social media sounds terrible and a big challenge to democracy. After all, shortcomings and all, social media is mass media and has many times proved to be the better alternative to check the government where other media sources have failed. Giving up this control would be extremely disastrous.

US Government’s move to regulate social media also puts pressure on the Indian Government as this order may expedite social media regulation in India. Currently, IT ministry is also drafting guidelines to regulate social media. Under section 79 of the IT Act, social media companies are granted with a safe harbour and granted immunity from content posted by its users.

Censorship and control of information is the best possible way to cripple a democracy, but it is often required to uphold the very nature of democracy, and in these new, unfamiliar times it is absolutely necessary to look into the context of it all and not forget that chaos takes place when media and information is allowed to run free without any checks. Free speech laws comes with a legal responsibility to not cause harm to anyone in society, but we live in times where social media giants are not responsible for what their users do and anyone can hide behind a screen and say anything they like.

But in a world where social media companies have the largest interaction among its users and have the power to mobilize millions of people, should we consider them to be just internet companies? Or should we hold them up to the standards of news companies? How do we handle this limbo situation?

Personally, I feel that this situation can be best handled by democratising the big tech companies. Facebook would not be as effective in spreading fake news and Twitter would have less hate content, if there were ten more Facebooks and Twitters. Democratization of the big tech giants would generate competition among them and create a self-sufficient system of checks and balances. Giving the government control of how big these companies are allowed to become and not what content they host on their platforms is easily a better and safer alternative than the direction we are going.