"A legislative fix?"
Waters and Denny want to amend a 1996 law commonly known as Section 230. It grants
online platforms broad legal protection for what users post on their sites. It's an
important component of free expression online.
Supporters say this law allows people to post all kinds of opinions and reviews on
places like Facebook, Yelp or Reddit. And it helps those sites, and others, grow to
In a National Public Radio story published in March, it was called "the one line of
federal code that has created more economic value in this country than any other" by
Michael Beckerman, president and CEO of the Internet Association.
As the IA sees it, if providers were liable for content posted on their sites, they
would become gatekeepers and enforcement agents, compelling them to block user content,
even if it was legal.
That would make the web less free, innovative and collaborative.
Waters says her goal is not to hinder freedom of expression. She's after scammers who
create fake accounts.
She wants Section 230 amended to require ongoing public education, technology that is
routinely updated and adequate staffing to provide hands-on monitoring of reported
duplicate accounts and newly created accounts that could be fraudulent.
"There are so many things that can be done that they're not doing," she said.
She has traveled to Washington, as has Denny, to meet with members of Congress. They
hope for continued movement in the fall.
But amending Section 230, a bedrock law upon which the web has grown, raises red flags
for civil libertarians, including Emma Llanso of the Center for Democracy and
The protections provided by Section 230 are "really essential to any kind of
interactive online service, or even a website with a comment section," she said.
"It's crucial that intermediaries have strong legal protection from liability for the
comment that their users post."
One big reason is volume. So much content is posted on websites, apps and other
services that it's impossible to perform the kind of pre-publication check that, for
example, newspapers do in the name of journalistic diligence.
She believes a legislative solution is too broad to address specific problems, and it
could have unintended consequences. Amending Section 230 would bring First Amendment
issues into play, whereas talking about private companies enforcing terms of service
But she agrees more could be done.
Online platforms "need to ensure that they have the systems and personnel, the kind of
customer service in place, to be responsive when issues like these arise," Llanso said.
That's especially the case with egregious problems. In Denny's case, well over 1,000
fraudulent accounts have been detected.
"I think it's incumbent upon the platforms to figure out how to be more responsive to
the really specific kinds of issues that people like Col. Denny are bringing to them,"
said Llanso. "This is a really clearly defined problem. It seems like it should be
easier for the platforms to respond, but right now, their systems may not be really set
up to do it."
She said platforms seem to be getting the message that they need to beef up their
responsiveness. Automation and algorithms only go so far.
"I do get a sense that some of this is hitting home, and they're really grappling with
the scale of the challenge they're facing," Llanso said. "The content moderation
systems they had in place probably didn't scale up as quickly as their user base."