Mark Zuckerberg has “repeatedly lied to the American people about privacy,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) said in a recent interview with the Willamette Week, a Portland alternative weekly newspaper. “I think he ought to be held personally accountable, which is everything from financial fines to—and let me underline this—the possibility of a prison term.”
Zuckerberg, Wyden said, has “hurt a lot of people.”
Wyden was talking to the Willamette Week about Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a 1996 law that gives online platforms like Facebook broad immunity for content posted by their users. Wyden was the co-author of the law and has been one of its most ardent defenders ever since.
The law has come under increasing criticism as concern has grown about toxic online content. Wyden isn’t ready to scrap it, but he says that he’s “looking for more ways to create market pressure on the big tech companies to take moderation more seriously.”
Wyden worries that more aggressive efforts to root out toxic content online would effectively “throw the First Amendment in the trash can.”
“I still think the basic frame of the shield—particularly for the little guy—is essential,” Wyden said of Section 230’s immunity provisions. “And I’m looking very aggressively for ways to shore up the sword, to get at the slime.”
Technology companies, Wyden argued, have “done practically everything wrong since the 2016 election.” He said he recently told technology companies: “If you don’t get serious on moderation, you’re going to have a lot of people coming after you.”
Section 230 has come under increasing pressure
Section 230 was fairly uncontroversial in the 1990s and 2000s. When the Internet was new and not yet ubiquitous, most people thought it made sense to shield Internet platforms from lawsuits over online content.
But in the last decade, the Internet has become pervasive, and the downsides of unfettered online communication have become more obvious. Major online platforms have responded by beefing up their moderation policies. But critics on both the left and the right have criticized their policies, and some have called for rolling back Section 230.
Wyden argues that the solution is more vigorous enforcement of laws that do still apply to online companies—including laws that require companies to be honest with consumers and investors. Wyden pointed to laws that allow executives to be held personally accountable if they lie about their company’s finances. But Wyden didn’t point to any specific law that could allow such harsh penalties over privacy violations.
The main US regulator on privacy issues is the Federal Trade Commission, which levied a historic $5 billion fine on Facebook in July. Media reports suggest that the FTC sought provisions that would have held Zuckerberg personally liable if Facebook again breached its commitments to the agency. But Facebook staunchly resisted those proposals and ultimately won a settlement that didn’t touch Zuckerberg personally.