Obama calls for tech regulation to tackle misinformation on the internet

Former US President Barack Obama gestures as he speaks during the 2021 Climate Summit in Glasgow November 08, 2021. NBC News reports that Obama will return to the White House on Tuesday for the first time since he left office to promote the Affordable Care Act in an event alongside President Joe Biden.

Jeff J Mitchell | Getty Images News | Getty Images

Former President Barack Obama said Thursday that the spread of misinformation online is hurting American democracy and the tech industry needs regulation and legislation to address the problem.

“The very design of these platforms seems to be pointing us in the wrong direction,” Obama said at a Stanford Cyber ​​Policy Center event.

The comments come as Congress considers a series of reforms to curb the power of the tech industry, including competition laws, privacy protections and changes to the legal shield known as Section 230, which allows content moderation but also protects platforms from user liability. ‘ posts.

This is a debate that has been raging in Washington for several years. Obama’s stance is notable because his administration is now seen by many reform proponents as having been friendly with the tech industry. Google reportedly had a close relationship with the Obama White House, for example, meeting with staff hundreds of times, according to a review of meeting minutes published by the Tech Transparency Project.

“I might never have been elected president if it weren’t for sites like – and I’m dating myself – MySpace, Meetup and Facebook, which enabled an army of young volunteers to s ‘organize to raise funds and spread our message,’ Obama said. . “That’s what elected me.”

But the relationship between Washington and Silicon Valley was less strained at the time. Things changed drastically in 2016, following the election of Donald Trump as President and the revelation of Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal.

Obama said he was “not convinced that repealing Section 230 outright is the answer.” President Joe Biden, who served as Obama’s vice president, advocated such a policy during his campaign for the White House, although most Democrats took less extreme positions.

Obama takes a measured approach. He said Congress should consider reforms to the law and that platforms should “be required to have a higher standard of care when it comes to advertising on their site.”

“If properly structured, regulation can promote competition and prevent incumbents from blocking new innovators,” Obama said.

Many conservative lawmakers have accused social media companies of censoring based on ideology, although the platforms have denied this and said they are simply enforcing their community guidelines. Obama has indicated that free speech arguments have serious limitations.

“I’m pretty close to a First Amendment absolutist,” Obama said. “The First Amendment is a check on state power. It does not apply to private companies like Facebook or Twitter, nor does it apply to editorial decisions made by The New York Times or Fox News. Never.Social media companies already make choices about what is and is not allowed on their platforms and how that content appears, both explicitly through content moderation and implicitly through algorithms. The problem is that we often don’t know what principles govern these decisions.

“Tell It to the Meat Inspector”

Obama has argued for increased transparency around the design of tech platforms, likening the concept to a proprietary method of packaging meat.

“They don’t have to tell the world what this technique is. They have to tell the meat inspector,” he said. “Similarly, tech companies should be able to protect their intellectual property while meeting certain security standards that we as a country, not just them, have agreed are necessary for the greater good. .”

Obama said internet companies are not solely responsible for the polarization rocking society.

“What social media platforms have done, through their increasing market dominance and emphasis on speed, is to accelerate the decline of newspapers and other traditional news sources,” he said. -he declares.

Obama appealed directly to tech companies and their employees, acknowledging the difficulty of pushing legislation forward.

“It’s a chance for companies to do the right thing. You’ll still make money, but you’ll feel better,” he said. “It’s a chance for the employees of these companies to push them to do the right thing. Because you’ve seen what’s out there and you want to feel better.”

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