The world has witnessed very rapid development in Internet Technology, which on the one hand, benefits society by granting access to knowledge and information, but on the other hand, allows little control over these vast amounts of data being published online daily. Today, humanity is facing a very significant issue of not being able to keep up with the progress in technology in terms of ethics and responsibility. Section 230 of the Communication Decency Act is a clear example of how the US government puts off the need to update the law regulating the spread of fake news and compromising information.
The law was created in 1996 when computers only had a dial-up Internet connection and large non-transportable screens connected to even bigger system units. Back then, the 230 Section was wholly relevant and dictated that Search Engines and Social Networks should not be held responsible for the content, which users post. However, decades later, this regulation became utterly outdated and started to negatively affect businesses and individuals in America. Let’s see how it works these days: a website publishes an article with negatively compromising information on someone, Google crawls this site together with its writing and adds it to their search list. If the affected by a compromising website person complains to Google and requests to delete untrue statements, the company would refer to 230 Section and disclaim their responsibility, making it a website’s obligation to take down fake information.
What is the issue with fake content online?
At first, it might seem like an easy job – the affected individual or business can simply get in touch with the website owner and ask them to remove the false article. However, today it has become rather prevalent for criminals to profit from blackmailing people because of the government inaction. Yuri Mosha is an entrepreneur who immigrated to the United States from Russia and now runs the immigration service company for Russian-speakers and faced these cyber-criminals first-hand.
He told us about the rising popularity of compromising websites and how these solutions make money from clients wanting to ruin lives and careers of rivals: “Not long after my departure to the United States, I started coming across various articles on the Internet, which attempted to create a negative impression about me with fake information. When this situation took place in 2010, it greatly affected my reputation in the immigration industry and resulted in my company losing almost 50 per cent of clients annually. We believe it was the work of our Moscow-based competitors, who tried to lure away our clients by all means.”
Back in the day, dealing with these websites required a lot of effort, but it was possible. Yuri and his team used to attract lawyers, get in touch with website owners, and threaten to take them to court. Frightened by legal responsibilities, fake news sites would take down any untrue articles. The process was rather timely and stressful but relatively straightforward – these were solitary and unrelated cases of criminal activity.
Recently, Mosha faced another flurry of compromising articles, but it proved that ways of dealing with cyber-criminals have gotten ineffective. The entrepreneur was dazed to discover that the owners of these fake news websites are only willing to take down information in return for monetary compensation. “Nowadays, these services operate as criminal gangs – they hold hundreds of websites. Taking down one service is pointless because, first of all, they are going to post articles on remaining ones, and, second of all, once they see your resistance, they might get even more aggressive.” Unfortunately, there are more complications to this issue. Every website owner ensures to be anonymous – they register their Internet services under a fake name and stay almost invincible, extorting money from desperate people. “Don’t be misled that offering them any amount of reward will help you get your unwanted content taken down – once cyber-criminals see you have resources, they are going to step up their blackmailing game”, says Yuri.
How other countries are dealing with Technology law?
In contrast to the current US legislation, European countries tend to take a more proactive position and enact up-to-date laws, protecting their citizens in digital space. European Search Engines, including EU-based Google, are obliged to remove articles after receiving a complaint. For instance, if an EU citizen living in the Netherlands comes across a report on the Internet, which denigrates them, they can reach out to Google requesting to take the page down. Search Engine would request their ID, confirming they reside in the European Union and then delete a website or page sharing compromising and untrue information according to European legislation.
Why is this approach not yet being practised in the US?
Before the election of 2020, President Biden gave an interview to the New York Times, where he addressed the issue and Section 230, saying that the law must be immediately revoked. It has been a while since that interview, and the cyber-criminals are still thriving. While businesses and individuals are forced to fight against fake information a lone hand, it remains unknown whether the president will review the Technology Law. But even if he does, it will take some time due to the bureaucratic structure of the American government system – the bill must be approved by Congress and Senators, which takes time to accomplish.
There might be a few more reasons why American congress members take their time and restrain from acting on the issue. First of all, corporations, such as Google, actively lobby their interests against the law change. The second reason is related to ethics and morals. As founders of liberalism and fighters for freedom, American people are worried that restricting online content will become an attempt at the freedom of speech.
What are the possible ways of dealing with fake information spread issue?
Yuri Mosha made his point on the moral dilemma of the 230 Section and found many supporters. He says, “We should not confuse freedom of speech with cyber-criminal activity. Authors of compromising articles blackmail people and gouge money. People should not pay money to take down fake information; it must become an obligation of Search Engine Platforms and Social Media to protect users from misleading content.” Today, Yuri is supported by 8 Senators from Congress, and is working on further attracting awareness to the issue. The problem of fake online content is rather significant and no one can be immune from it. The ultimate approach to coerce government to act is by attracting attention of the American society and reaching out to members of congress.