Reason Roundup

Mark Zuckerberg to Congress: Please Regulate Us (Wink, Wink)

Plus: Unrest and looting in Philadelphia after the police shoot and kill a black man, Trump supporters stranded in Omaha, Biden faces new corruption allegations, and more...

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When Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before Congress on Wednesday, he will call on lawmakers to take explicit action to rewrite the law that protects a free and open internet. In doing so, he will be implicitly asking the federal government to impose huge new regulatory costs on social media sites like his own—costs that will ultimately protect Facebook from rising upstarts.

In signaling that Facebook would be willing to support some changes to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996—the federal statute that protects online platforms from liability for content posted by users—Zuckerberg's testimony will also serve as a reminder that the bipartisan assault on online freedom will be one of the major policy battles of the next few years no matter who wins next week's election.

"The debate about Section 230 shows that people of all political persuasions are
unhappy with the status quo," Zuckerberg will tell the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Technology, according to a written testimony released Tuesday night.

The CEO will also remind the committee that Section 230 does two things: It encourages free expression on the internet because platforms can give their users free rein to post about anything without fear of facing lawsuits over that content. Secondly, it allows platforms to set their own rules for content moderation. Zuckerberg is right that lots of people are complaining about Section 230 these days, but they don't agree on why. Some people on the left are unhappy about the unfettered freedom on social media, which sometimes results in unsavory views being promoted, while some people on the right are all aflutter over how private companies are (sometimes foolishly) managing and moderating content.

Asking Congress or federal regulators to sort all of that out in a way that makes everyone happy seems like a fool's errand. Anyway, here's what Zuckerberg plans to say:

I believe we need a more active role for governments and regulators, which is why in March last year I called for regulation on harmful content, privacy, elections, and data portability. We stand ready to work with Congress on what regulation could look like in these areas. By updating the rules for the internet, we can preserve what's best about it—the freedom for people to express themselves and for entrepreneurs to build new things—while also protecting society from broader harms. I would encourage this Committee and other stakeholders to make sure that any changes do not have unintended consequences that stifle expression or impede innovation.

(Emphasis mine.)

That last bit about avoiding unintended consequences is particularly amusing for two reasons. First, given Congress' low level of technological prowess, unintended consequences of a massive rewrite of the internet's First Amendment are all but guaranteed.

Second, Zuckerberg is no fool. He fully understands that one of the intended consequences—from his perspective, at least—of new regulations for online speech would be protecting the interests of companies like his own.

"Large companies like Facebook benefit from regulatory barriers that keep competitors small and weak," Jesse Blumenthal, vice president of technology for Stand Together, tells Reason.

"Make no mistake about it: this is Mark Zuckerberg pulling up the innovation ladder he climbed behind him," writes Mike Masnick, editor of Techdirt. Masnick notes that some blame should be shared by everyone who has facilitated the current moral panic over so-called "Big Tech," a trumped-up crisis that is only going to benefit those same companies in the long run.

"Facebook is throwing the open internet under the bus—in part gleefully, as so-called 'critics' of Facebook stupidly demanded 'reforms to Section 230' incorrectly believing that 230 was a 'special subsidy' for Facebook," he writes. "Facebook doesn't need it any more, but all of the people who called for such reforms are now going to help cement Facebook's position of dominance."

With bipartisan buy-in and a willing partner just asking to be regulated, it seems almost certain that the fight over Section 230 will be a major issue for the next Congress and presidential administration. Once the dust settles from this year's election, new battle lines will have to be drawn between those who value the freedom that's made the internet such a weird and wonderful place, and those who see political or financial benefits from wrapping it in government regulation.


UNREST IN PHILADELPHIA

Protests spurred by the police killing of 27-year-old Walter Wallace Jr. turned violent in parts of Philadelphia on Tuesday night. Wallace was armed with a knife when he was gunned down by officers on Monday.

Philadelphia police asked residents to remain indoors on Tuesday night as rioting and looting took place in parts of the city. Dozens of people were arrested according to media reports.

There were also violent confrontations between residents and police.

As always, the escalation of violence—both by and against cops—and opportunistic destruction of private property is unlikely to result in meaningful policing reforms. Those reforms, however, remain necessary.


ELECTION 2020

President Donald Trump held a rally in Omaha, Nebraska, on Tuesday night and then stranded hundreds of supporters in freezing temperatures for hours afterward. Some rally attendees required medical assistance, and the president's critics were quick to claim that the whole mess was an obvious metaphor for all things Trump.

Meanwhile, former Vice President Joe Biden is facing fresh allegations of corruption relating to China. Tony Bobulinski, a former Biden associate, told Fox News' Tucker Carlson on Tuesday night that Biden lied when he denied having knowledge of a business deal concocted by his son and brother with a Chinese company.


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