BuzzFeed has some pretty peculiar journalistic standards. Earlier today this story included a flat, declaratory statement by its author: “The federal act’s protections are contingent on these companies acting neutrally.” The federal act in question being 47 U.S. Code § 230, establishing “protection for private blocking and screening of offensive material”.
As was rapidly pointed out on Twitter, this remaining portion of the Communications Decency Act from the mid-90s carries no such neutrality provision. In fact, half the reason this BuzzFeed story exists at all is that rightwing politicians and their media enablers are pushing legislative “fixes” to make Section 230 require neutrality.
Both the plain language of the law itself and the very fact that attempts are being made to amend it demonstrate that it does not require neutrality. It's one thing (yet still problematic) to let rightwing partisans just push the argument that it does. It's still another thing altogether for a reporter to state that argument as fact in their own voice.
Here's the full paragraph from the original version of the story, as captured by the Wayback Machine.
“Things that were unthinkable in the past, like changing or repealing [Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act], like antitrust, they're all on the table for Republicans now in Congress,” the former employee said. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act grants legal immunity to technology companies for content on their services. The federal act’s protections are contingent on these companies acting neutrally, and the leak implied Google had not.
Here's the new paragraph as late this afternoon someone at BuzzFeed decided to heed the criticism from the reality-based community.
“Things that were unthinkable in the past, like changing or repealing [Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act], like antitrust, they're all on the table for Republicans now in Congress,” the former employee said. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act grants legal immunity to technology companies for content on their services. The law states that “no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as a publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” and this has been interpreted by some to mean that private companies must take a neutral stance on what is published to their platforms, though 230 does not explicitly require neutrality.
I'm going to hit this from a couple of different angles because I think both angles are important.
First, I want to point out that while the revised version does include a disclaimer at the bottom, it simply reads, “This article has been updated to clarify Section 230's protections.” Nowhere does it indicate that initially the reporter was parroting a rightwing talking point in his own voice. That's less than great from the standpoint of best journalistic practices.
Second, the revised version in some ways isn't any better because it still passes along rightwing talking points without providing context. There is no legal analysis of Section 230 which credibly posits a current requirement for neutrality. That “interpretation” by “some” is a purely political position, and BuzzFeed News should provide that sort of context to coverage of the law.
There's a factual matter here that is easy to establish even when reporting on what the rightwing wants: the law says nothing about neutrality. It should have been reported that way from the beginning.
I know there is nothing magical about it being the year 2019 but I wish that by now we'd left this sort of reporting behind.
ETA: “I am conflicted about a number of aspects about section 230,” writes Jeff Kosseff, “but one thing is clear: Section 230’s applicability never hinged on a platform being 'neutral.'”
#Internet #Journalism #Law #July2019