Saturday, June 27, 2020

CNBC covers the history of Internet speech regulation

NSF building

CNBC has a new video “Who Regulates What’s Posted Online?

The title sounds provocative and focused on today’s situation with the problems created by COVID.

Actually, it goes back to the early days of Arpanet, and then the monitoring of the National Science Foundation, which used to be located downtown DC, then moved to Ballston in Arlington, and recently moved again to Alexandria. The Internet largely opened up to the public in 1992, and soon services like AOL and Prodigy were born and email became common (I started using AOL in 1994). There had been a variety of bulletin boards and services even in the 80s.

The video then goes on to discuss the Net Neutrality idea, with the changes in 2016 and then with the Trump administration, where at least there has been some paid prioritization but no shutoff or payola for regular websites. A more pressing issue is providing access in rural or underserved areas, now that so much work and education has been forced online by Covid and this may remain so well into 2021.

The video discusses the 1996 Communications Decency Act, with the attempt at censorship, struck down by SCOTUS in 1997, and the part that survived, Section 230.

It is widely believed that Section 230 is necessary for platforms and hosts,  to operate at all without liability from posters, but as a Jeff Kosseff explains in a new book (“The 26 Rules that Created the Internet”) considerable case law involving bookstores, and then early services like CompuServ and Prodigy, had established some liability protection (as in Europe). But Section 230 allows platforms to moderate content or even have a political bias without incurring liability for most content.  A recent controversial Executive Order by Trump attempts to change that and remove the supposed “bias against conservatives” (Wordpress post). Another good question would be, may platforms still "not" moderate content? 

The video did not cover DMCA safe harbor (corresponds to 230 for copyright).

The picture above shows the NSF in Ballston before the Ballston Quarter renovations, which ironically now have to deal with Covid after being completed.

Seriously, I would be concerned if the tech companies will be able to able to keep up completely if everyone has to do all school online next fall, or if there are any more long-lasting complete lockdowsn.  When some people have to work in grocery stories, YouTube can become a frivolous luxury and that point worries me.


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