Letter to the editor: Hold Facebook accountable

The following is a letter sent to Senator Pat Leahy on April 10
Dear Senator Leahy,
I’m a constituent and fourth-generation newspaper publisher from the Northeast Kingdom. My appeal is to you as a well-known champion of free speech.
Since 1837, our daily newspaper served the Northeast Kingdom counties of Caledonia, Essex and Orleans. In each of the past two quarters, we’ve been unable to pay our printer in full. Part of that reflects the general economic malaise of our region. The other part is the advertising revenue we’ve lost — almost in whole — to the digital duopoly of Google and Facebook.
It’s the latter company for which I write.
Like you, my family has long championed free speech.
So it was with horror that I read Mark Zuckerburg’s recent editorial calling for government regulation of speech. He did this for one simple reason, policing his own platform would be prohibitively expensive.
He’s right. I know this because I am held responsible for everything published in our family of newspapers. Truth and accuracy are expensive. They are also the bedrock of my dying industry and, writ large, democracy.
In a terrible miscalculation (Telecommunications Act of 1996, section 230) the United States government once classified Facebook and other social media companies as technology companies rather than publishers. Though you voted against the act, the majority of the Senate took the view that this new breed of operator was more like the telcos (AT&T, Verizon) who carried data, than companies like mine that publishes information. In so doing, they absolved these companies of any responsibility for the content on their platforms.
That distinction without a difference paved the way for the creation of history’s largest surveillance and disinformation apparatus — the weaponization of which should be considered a matter of national security (if you haven’t already, please read Roger McNamee’s op-ed, published in Time — “I Mentored Mark Zuckerberg. I Loved Facebook. But I Can’t Stay Silent About What’s Happening”).
I think we can all agree that Facebook set all the requisite conditions in which deeply dark forces thrive — fertile ground for the high octane distribution of falsehood and vitriol; citizens armed with a private set of “alternative facts” to make their increasingly hardened and partisan points; foreign and domestic enemies bent on sowing discontent and division through these channels; world leaders who owe their existence to a confused electorate; and now an open call to dismantle our country’s most bedrock freedom.
Facebook also killed newspapers — the former gatekeepers of verified, fact-based information. They did this first by creating a platform that hooked users in a wildly engaging, personalized fake news dystopia. Second, they leveraged the chilling psychographic profiles they compiled of users to target advertising in a way that self-respecting publications would never dream to do. Without ad revenue to support their operations, over 1,800 newspapers have closed in our country in the past 15 years.
Some will argue that we were beaten in a free market. But, as a staunch free-market guy with a strong libertarian streak, I reject that argument outright. As soon as the government freed Facebook, et al., to publish anything, we suckers left trying to report the truth never stood a chance (facts are almost always less interesting than the Facebook version of them … Not to mention a lie makes it around the world a hundred times before the truth can put on its shoes).
Now, with journalists largely out of the way, Zuckerburg is calling for outright regulation of speech by government. It’s basically the only prescription we can imagine that’s worse than the disease.
Zuckerburg doesn’t need to kill our country’s most important protection, he just needs to adhere to the same publishing guidelines we do: No obscenity; No fighting words; No defamation; No child pornography; No perjury; No blackmail; No incitement to violence; No true threats; No solicitations to commit crimes.
These should not be outrageous expectations from the world’s largest content publisher. But he won’t go there without being forced to. It’s long past time that somebody forced him to.
I believe that Facebook’s well-documented role in various worldwide catastrophes — from genocide to widescale election tampering in some of the world’s most sophisticated democracies — should provide plenty of cover for you to take action.
Fortunately, the prescription is simple. Regulate these companies as publishers, rather than technology companies. They opened the door themselves, by editing content on their platforms. Clearly that’s self-acknowledgement of their role as publishers.
Guidance on the topic is provided by Zuckerburg himself who said in 2014, “Our goal is to build the perfect personalized newspaper for every person in the world.” His editors are algorithms, making decisions to personalize content to users. That’s a publisher.
Senator Leahy, level the playing field for those of us committed to responsible and fact-based publishing. Introduce legislation that makes these companies responsible for the content on their platform by amending section 230. The court system will take it from there.
Todd M. Smith
Caledonian-Record Pub. Co. Inc.
St. Johnsbury

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