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The Week in Tech: Are Lawmakers Too Eager to Weaken Big Tech’s Legal Shield?

Each week, we review the week’s news, offering analysis about the most important developments in the tech industry.

Hi, I’m Jamie Condliffe. Greetings from London. Here’s a look at this past week’s tech news:

Some lawmakers are scrambling to rethink a law that enabled the internet as we know, love and hate it.

The other week, my colleague Daisuke Wakabayashi explained Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act:

“The First Amendment protects free speech, including hate speech, but Section 230 shields websites from liability for content created by their users. It permits internet companies to moderate their sites without being on the hook legally for everything they host.”

Dai also wrote that lawmakers from both parties were going after it, for different reasons. Some Democrats say it gives social media platforms an excuse to leave up problematic content; some Republicans argue it enables companies to censor conservative voices.

It’s hard to reconcile those viewpoints. So is the case closed?

Nope. If lawmakers can’t agree, the president may step in. Politico reported that the White House was drafting an executive order to deal with alleged anticonservative bias. CNN later claimed to have seen a version of the order, which it said would mandate that the Federal Communications Commission restrict how far the immunity of Section 230 was extended.

The proposal as described by CNN could face problems, according to John Bergmayer, a senior staff lawyer at Public Knowledge, a consumer advocacy group. It could face statutory and administrative hurdles; it may even run up against free-speech rights by forcing neutrality. Regardless, if it exists, it would make clear that there was desire, and urgency, to change Section 230.

Since the law was signed, in 1996, the tasks of online moderation, and the influence of the internet companies that the law helped become behemoths, have changed drastically. It may well be time for a rethink.

But “we still haven’t defined the problems, let alone the solutions,” with Section 230, said Jeff Kosseff, the author of a book about the law, “The Twenty-Six Words That Created the Internet.” He added, “I think we need to slow down a little.”

Is suppression of right-wing views online real? There’s little quantitative evidence to support the claim. And while it’s difficult to argue that social media platforms are good at removing problematic content, the opacity of their moderation makes it difficult to know how hard they’re working. Clearer insight would be good if Section 230 reform demanded stronger moderation.

It’s important to get it right: Limiting or removing Section 230 immunity could have profound and hard-to-predict effects. Platforms may moderate less if they fear that exercising editorial control opens them up to loss of free-speech protections. Or they could moderate more, to avoid publication of troublesome content. Some might ditch user-generated content altogether.

“We really don’t know exactly what would happen,” Mr. Kosseff said, “because the modern internet in the United States always has existed under Section 230.”

(The rest of the world doesn’t have it, sure. But most important internet companies are based in the United States, which “has a libel tourism law that prohibits U.S. courts from enforcing foreign defamation judgments unless they are consistent with both the First Amendment and Section 230,” Mr. Kosseff said. So we don’t really know what would happen if it was removed or modified.)

Intertwined with all of this are big questions about what kind of internet we want now and in the future, and about trade-offs between freedom of expression and reduction of harm. It could pay not to rush them.

Tumblr’s new chance

What can you buy for $3 million? A nice apartment in Manhattan. A super car. Or Tumblr?

That’s what the blogging website was changing hands for, sources told Dan Primack at Axios, after Verizon announced Tumblr’s sale to Automattic, the owner WordPress. (The Wall Street Journal called the price “nominal.”) The precise sum doesn’t much matter: It was certainly tiny compared with the $1.1 billion that Yahoo paid for Tumblr in 2013. (Refresher: Verizon owned Tumblr because in 2015 it bought AOL, which merged with Yahoo in 2017.)

What happened? As my colleague Kara Swisher argued, it was once “rich with quirky communities” and “wonderful memes” that made it “one of the most delightful places.” At least in 2010. And she’s right! But that was before copyright issues, pornography problems and the growth of competitors like Facebook, as well as corporate oversight that slowed it down.

But maybe Tumblr’s changing hands for peanuts is good? The fire-sale price no doubt made it attractive to Automattic, and, now, under the same roof as WordPress, maybe it can flourish. Automattic’s chief executive, Matt Mullenweg, told the Verge that he would like Tumblr “to become a social alternative,” that he liked its “fun and friendliness” and that he hoped its “best days are actually ahead of it.” Here’s hoping.

How to kill a smart speaker

The annual cybersecurity jamboree in Las Vegas — the Black Hat and Def Con conferences — always throws up fascinating, terrifying and weird news. This year was no exception, from a roaming license plate recognition system in a Tesla to ransomware for digital cameras to ways of gaming Europe’s data privacy rules to mice that detect fake audio.

But a report from Wired about work by Matt Wixey, a cybersecurity researcher at the consulting firm PwC, caught my eye. Mr. Wixey wondered whether he could use malware to force devices with speakers to “emit noise exceeding maximum permissible level guidelines.”

He could. Then he tested it on a bunch of devices, and this is what happened:

“Attacking the smart speaker in particular generated enough heat to start melting its internal components after four or five minutes, permanently damaging the device.”

Mr. Wixey didn’t say which speaker this was, and the manufacturer has since patched the vulnerability. But, still, wow.

Some stories you shouldn’t miss

It’s very messy. But if you have to, you have to.” That was Joe Simons, the head of the Federal Trade Commission, on the idea of breaking up big tech companies, in a Bloomberg interview.

WeWork released paperwork for its initial public offering, revealing losses of $1.6 billion in 2018 on revenue of just $1.8 billion.

Russia opened an antitrust inquiry into Apple for removing parental control apps from its App Store. The company increasingly looks to be the first Big Tech test case for similar action in Europe and the United States, too.

Facebook contractors listened to users’ audio to check the performance of artificial intelligence speech analysis, Bloomberg reported. That has now stopped, but European investigators are investigating whether it violated privacy rules.

Hackers are professionalizing. Apple now offers up to $1 million for killer bugs, and researchers looking for them have stepped into the world of legitimate business, accounting and all.

Restaurateurs don’t need a dining room any more. Virtual restaurants and ghost kitchens mean Uber Eats, DoorDash and GrubHub are bringing eating out to you.

Capital One may have been the tip of an iceberg. The woman accused of hacking that company may have obtained data from over 30 other organizations, prosecutors said.

Amazon’s facial recognition now identifies fear, according to the company. Look in a mirror now and see it for yourself!

Snap has new Spectacles. They have two cameras to perceive depth, and will cost $390.

New Zealand legalized salaries paid in cryptocurrency. What could go wrong?


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