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Section 230 May Bury Us

Posted on Friday, January 29, 2021 at 2:21 AM

An uncertain future awaits us as editors if we cede too much power to tech and social media giants at this critical juncture.

FLASH: See urgent development reported in Comments section!

By William Dunkerley

If any part of your editorial budget is supported by ad revenue, Section 230 is out to get you. "230" is the law that permits the tech giants, and even lesser social media platforms, to skirt responsibility for whatever they publish. That allows them to churn out enormous amounts of content with practically no editorial expense.

That volume of content attracts readers, who in turn attract digital ad dollars. MarketWatch reports that Google and Facebook alone soak up a combined 70 percent of the digital ad spend. That severely limits the advertising money that's left for your publication to compete for. Section 230 is one reason so many publications are finding it difficult to achieve growth online.

There's not much an individual publication can do to fight this injustice. Clearly this is a job for our professional organizations. But are they representing our interests? If so, they don't seem to have achieved much success.

How Editorial Organizations Are Responding

I checked online to see what some of the organizations have been up to. First I searched for any mention of Section 230 on the website of the American Society of Magazine Editors (ASME). Nothing found. Then I tried the same search for the American Society of Business Press Editors (ASBPE). Same result. Perhaps these organizations have been working behind the scenes, but there's no sign of it online.

The former Society of National Association Publications, now known as AMP, is a different story. It appears to be on the side of protecting the tech giants and social media platforms, and the current absence of liability for what they publish.

I say "appears" because it's really hard to tell for sure. You see, AMP has become part of the Software and Information Industry Association (SIIA), who put out a press release on Section 230. What's AMP doing there? It sounds like a conflict of interest to me. It's worse than a wolf guarding a henhouse; it’s like a hen living in a wolf's den. But whatever the case, the organization's position seems to be in conflict with the best interests of publishers.

The American Society of News Editors (ASNE) is yet another story. When I searched its site, I found something about Section 230, too. This organization filed an amicus brief in one case. It says that a threat to Section 230 immunities would "threaten the comment sections and discussion forums offered by news sites, which are often used to collect, confirm and further redistribute news and information. The result is likely that comments and online feedback are likely to be eliminated by many publications."

So, in effect, these editors are arguing that their publications are not really publications, or at least part of the publications are not a publication. They're like a telephone company or post office. They are arguing for a free-for-all in comment sections, with no real responsibility for what they publish.

Here's what's wrongheaded with that. That kind of unfettered, uncurated material is freely available all over the internet. A lot of it serves the egos or political interests of the posters. As long as this is not violating a law or injuring anyone, there's nothing wrong with that. But there's no one attesting to the reliability of the content.

If your content mimics that mode of operation, what advantage do you have? The advantage a publication can offer is that its content is curated to suit the interests of its audience, and there are editors who assure its reliability. That makes up your brand. That's what gives you an advantage in attracting and keeping readers, and in acquiring advertisers that help to pay for your editorial budgets.

What Needs to Change

To level the playing field, and give publications the chance they deserve, the existing provisions of Section 230 need to be changed.

Right now that law considers the tech giants and social media to be merely distributors of information. The telephone company and the US Postal Service fit into that category well. They don't influence the content they handle. They're not held accountable for the content that passes through their networks. If the tech giants and social media companies want to operate similarly, they deserve to be in that category.

But that's not what's being practiced now. In my view there is room for a new category to accommodate them. This category would allow the tech giants and social media platforms to moderate content based on behavioral rules. But moderation could not be based on the nature of any content that is legally permissible. So in effect they would be serving as a digital public square -- a place where people can go to exercise their right of free speech, no matter what their views may be, without interference (provided they do not violate laws). If the platforms should violate anyone's right to speak freely, they should be penalized.

But there could be behavioral rules such as those to assure the rights of all participants. The content might be unreliable. But that's okay. For reliable content, audiences can turn to branded publications. In addition, as editors we have the right to publish one-sided perspectives, if that is what our readers want. No one has the right to use our pages to exercise personal rights to free speech. Nor is there a right to use our personal living rooms for such purpose. Folks wanting to do that should go to the digital public squares. Meanwhile we are unfettered in our ability to serve boutique content to our audiences.

As an individual editor there is little you can do to level the playing field. But our professional organizations should address the issue. So if this topic concerns you, and you can see how it can impact your publication’s future, it's time to let your professional organizations know about this concern. Without group action, the tech giants and social media companies will continue to gain strength at our expense.

William Dunkerley is principal of William Dunkerley Publishing Consultants, www.publishinghelp.com.

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"One thing editors/writers can do about Sectoin 230 is to write about the situation -- write about it for our audiences, write about it to our legislators and regulators, write about it to our organizations." --Curt Harler, freelance writer, curtharler.com.

"Urgent: HD Media has just filed an antitrust suit against Facebook and Google. The tech giants are charged with monopolizing the market for digital ads. HD Media is a West Virginia-based magazine and newspaper publisher. Company officials would like to hear from editors that support this initiative. We urge EO readers to contact to Doug Reynolds at 304-522-2305 x2305." --EO Staff

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