As Elon Musk noisily wrestles with the complexities of bringing a wide venue for speech on Twitter, former President Barack Obama – whose administration was largely hands-off when it came to regulating Silicon Valley – is calling on the federal government and social media companies to do more to stem the spread of misinformation.
In a recent keynote to a Stanford University symposium, Obama discussed myriad ways misinformation threatens democracies. He centered his vision for reform around Section 230, which currently grants social media companies liability protection in court for speech generated by users.
Obama praised the internet for connecting people around the world, making economies more efficient, and even for playing a key role in his election. “I might never have been elected president if it hadn’t been for websites like, and I’m dating myself, MySpace, MeetUp and Facebook that allowed an army of young volunteers to organize, raise money, spread our message,” he said. “That’s what elected me. But like all advances in technology, this progress has had unintended consequences that sometimes come at a price. And in this case, we see that our new information ecosystem is turbocharging some of humanity’s worst impulses.”
Obama’s prescription to help fix the problem did not include attempts to get rid of all offensive or inflammatory content on the web. “That is a straw man,” said Obama. “We’d be wrong to try. Freedom of speech is at the heart of every democratic society, (and) in America those protections are enshrined in the First Amendment to our Constitution. There’s a reason it came first in the Bill of Rights.
“I’m pretty close to a First Amendment absolutist. I believe that in most instances the answer to bad speech is good speech. I believe that the free, robust, sometimes antagonistic exchange of ideas produces better outcomes and a healthier society.”
The former president said tech companies need to be more aggressive in self-policing and more transparent in their operations, while the federal government now has a responsibility to take additional steps.
“And while I’m not convinced that wholesale repeal of Section 230 is the answer, it is clear that tech companies have changed dramatically over the last 20 years,” said Obama. “And we need to consider reforms to Section 230 to account for those changes, including whether platforms should be required to have a higher standard of care, when it comes to advertising on their site.”
As for precedents, the former president cited a “long history of regulating new technologies in the name of public safety,” including cars, pharmaceuticals, and food products.
“This may seem like an odd example and forgive me, you vegans out there, but if a meat packing company has a proprietary technique to keep our hot dogs fresh and clean, they don’t have to reveal to the world what that technique is. They do have to tell the meat inspector.”
The president endorsed the bipartisan Platform Accountability and Transparency Act, or PATA, which would require social media companies to report their internal, proprietary operations to independent researchers – the meat inspectors in the president’s metaphor – who would examine this data and release findings on platforms’ impacts on the public.
In an earlier iteration of this blog, we erroneously reported that the president had endorsed the almost identically named Platform Accountability and Consumer Transparency Act. Apologies aside, we still believe the president’s ideas would best be expressed by passage of the PACT Act — sponsored by Sens. Brian Schatz (D-HI) and John Thune (R-SD). The PACT Act would require social media companies that enjoy liability protection to have clear and easy-to-understand standards for the removal of offensive posts. Platforms would also have to afford users due process, allowing them to appeal for quick resolution of complaints.
The key to the PACT Act isn’t government inspection of data and algorithms. It is balance – transparency for all users and the right to contest a deleted post or deplatformed website. That’s the better way to make a hotdog.