Enlarge/ Former Vice President Joe Biden poking at a mobile phone in October 2019.
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Former Vice President Joe Biden is calling for one of the primary laws defining how Internet content is regulated to be “revoked,” adding that the “little creeps” who run some of Silicon Valley’s biggest businesses aren’t the economic powerhouses they think they are.
“I’ve never been a fan of Facebook, as you probably know. I’ve never been a big [Facebook CEO Mark] Zuckerberg fan,” Biden began in response to tech questions posed by The New York Times. “I think he’s a real problem.”
“He [Zuckerberg] knows better,” Biden elaborated, telling the Times, “Not only should we be worrying about the concentration of power, we should be worried about the lack of privacy and them being exempt.”
The exemption to which Biden was referring is § 230 of the Communications Decency Act. The key part of the law reads:
No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.
At its most basic level, the law draws a line between the platform that hosts content and the generator of the content hosted on it. If something is hinky in a YouTube video, “Google” isn’t the company that spoke the contents; the video creator is.
“Section 230 reform” has something of a rallying cry among the far right in recent months. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) last year introduced legislation seeking to amend the law, revoking “the immunity big tech companies receive under Section 230 unless they submit to an external audit that proves by clear and convincing evidence that their algorithms and content-removal practices are politically neutral.”
Hawley has company in both chambers of Congress. Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) have also lent public support to the idea of Section 230 reform, as has Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) on the House side.
The cry for reform is not limited to a single party, though. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told Recode last April that section 230 is “a gift” to the tech firms, adding, “I don’t think they are treating it with the respect that they should, and so I think that could be a question mark and in jeopardy.”
Biden, however, did not call for reformshe called for abolishing the provision entirely. “Youre not exempt,” he told his interviewers. “[The Times] cant write something you know to be false and be exempt from being sued. But he can. The idea that its a tech company is that Section 230 should be revoked, immediately should be revoked, number one. For Zuckerberg and other platforms.”
When the NYT pointed out that Section 230 is foundational to the modern Internet, Biden agreed, then continued:
And it should be revoked. It should be revoked because it is not merely an internet company. It is propagating falsehoods they know to be false, and we should be setting standards not unlike the Europeans are doing relative to privacy. You guys still have editors. Im sitting with them. Not a joke. There is no editorial impact at all on Facebook. None. None whatsoever. Its irresponsible. Its totally irresponsible.
It’s apparently personal, but not criminal
Biden called particular, but oblique, attention to Facebook’s decision not to block political ads that mislead users or tell outright lies, so long as those ads do not engage in obvious attempts at voter suppression. That discussion was kicked off in October, when the Trump campaign aired ads on Facebook making false accusations about Biden. The ads contained baseless claims about Biden’s activities in Ukraine and elsewhere that have been repeatedly debunked by both media outlets and also other Republican politicians.
Biden suggested to the NYT that Facebook’s choice to allow such ads could amount to defamation, saying that Zuckerberg “should be submitted to civil liability and his company to civil liability, just like you would be here at The New York Times” if the paper were to run demonstrably false stories. Whether Facebook should face any kind of criminal penalties, he added, is less clear.
If Zuckerberg or anyone else at Facebook “engaged in something and amounted to collusion that in fact caused harm that would in fact be equal to a criminal offense, thats a different issue,” Biden added. “Thats possible. Thats possible it could happen. Zuckerberg finally took down those ads that Russia was running. All those bots about me. Theyre no longer being run,” he continued. Biden seemingly conflated action taken by an opposing campaign with the kind of foreign disinformation action that is indeed rampant across social media.
The tech sector, and Facebook in particular, is overdue for some government intervention, Biden added, drawing a line through history:
The fact is, in every other revolution that weve had technologically, its taken somewhere between six years and a generation for a government to come in and level the playing field again. All of a sudden, remember the Luddites smashing the machinery in the Midlands? That was their answer when the culture was changing. Same thing with television. Same thing before that with radio. Same thing, but this is gigantic.
And its a responsibility of government to make sure it is not abused. Not abused. And so this is one of those areas where I think its being abused. For example, the idea that he cooperates with knowing that Russia was engaged in dealing with using the internet, I mean using their platform, to try to undermine American elections. Thats close to criminal.
Intuiting that Biden was still talking about Facebook, the Times interviewer posited that Zuckerberg might not have known at the time how deeply involved Russia was. “He’d argue it and I don’t believe him for a second,” Biden replied. “Nor do you, in your heart.”
Tech on blast
Biden’s antipathy for tech did not stop with Facebook; he spoke more widely of his distaste with the sector as well.
“You may recall the criticism I got for meeting with the leaders in Silicon Valley, when I was trying to work out an agreement dealing with them protecting intellectual property for artists in the United States of America,” Biden said. “At one point, one of the little creeps sitting around that table, who was a multiclose to a billionairewho told me he was an artist because he was able to come up with games to teach you how to kill people.”
The interviewer asked Biden if he meant video games, and Biden agreed. He went on to say that he was “lectured” at that table by a “senior leader” who claimed that if Biden and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) moved forward with the bill in question, “they would blow up the network, figuratively speaking. Have everybody contact. They get out and go out and contact the switchboard, just blow it up.”
Biden went on to say that there were representatives of seven firms sitting in that meeting, “everyone’s there but Microsoft,” and he found “you have fewer people on your payroll than all the losses that General Motors just faced in the last quarter, of employees. So dont lecture me about how youve created all this employment.”
It is unclear which particular meeting with “little creeps” Biden was alluding to. The references to GM and to intellectual property, however, seem to indicate this meeting took place in 2008, while Biden was still representing Delaware in the Senate. Once he became Vice President in 2009, Biden continued to be deeply involved in copyright law struggles. Early in the first Obama term, Biden promised strong enforcement to the recording industries, and he was a key presence in a 2010 White House push to reform copyright enforcement.
While it’s hard to work out the relative economic importance of seven unknown companies that might have been represented at an unknown meeting more than a decade ago, there is no doubt that here in 2020, the tech sector is a massive contributor to the US economy. Four publicly traded companies in US history have passed the $1 trillion valuation mark. Apple was the first to do so, in 2018. Amazon followed later that year, and Microsoft joined the club in 2019. The most recent, Google parent company Alphabet, did so earlier this week.
Enlarge/ Former Vice President Joe Biden poking at a mobile phone in October 2019.