An open letter to the President about Internet/ Social Media Regulation

I e-mailed the President a shortened version of this letter regarding Social Media Regulation.

Dear Mr. President,

My name is Adam Khan, and I am a 14-year-old American living abroad in the UK (although hoping one day to return to the US). I am deeply passionate about technology, and I know of your stance on repealing Section 230 relating to internet content regulation. I certainly agree with you and share your administration’s concerns, and have spent some time thinking about what could be done in place of it in terms of regulating the internet – something that is effective and decisive, but not infringing upon the first amendment – something Bipartisan that every lawmaker should be able to get on board with. I have written out a short policy proposal as well as a pre-amble explaining my view on both sides of the issue, and I would be deeply appreciative if your administration would consider pursuing this avenue of regulation. The internet is both a beautiful and concerning place, which can showcase the best and the worst of humanity, and I believe the most effective and most intelligent way to regulate it is laid out below.

Introduction:

In recent weeks and months, we have seen the worst in human nature amplified, spread, and promoted through social media resulting in deadly consequences. Clearly, the way social media companies are able to operate has to change. However, this issue is nuanced and complicated. The attempt to reduce this issue into soundbites and tribalistic, simplified arguments is irresponsible and counterproductive. Section 230 should be repealed, but it has to be replaced with something better. Chaos will follow if Section 230 is repealed but there is no replacement law, as either tech companies will not regulate content at all, or regulation would be taken over entirely by a government agency – both outcomes are unideal.

My Thinking:

Those wary of too much regulation fear the first amendment would be side-lined, and there is some merit to that argument. The broad leeway companies have had in regulating content has not been effective in serving the people. However, doing too much in the way of regulation would result in major sites fracturing and falling, leading to smaller sites with no restrictions on content popping up, which is much harder to monitor.

Section 230 should have encouraged companies to restrict the very worst of content from their platforms. In theory, this should have worked, but it relied deeply on the good faith of tech companies which did not ensue. With so much control being put in the hands of these behemoth companies, there are bound to be problems. Companies are, by and large, motivated by profit – and so they will take decisions that do not safeguard the wellbeing of their users or the safety of the world, but rather what generates more times on their services. The vagueness and openness-to-interpretation of their rules, eg ‘we do not tolerate Hate Speech’ can mean anything, leads to abuses of their rules by users and by employees who regulate what is banned and what is not.

Governments, however, cannot be trusted entirely on this issue as well due to its political nature. Under the Trump administration, we have seen US institutions abused and politically manipulated – for example, the postal service being used to crack down on mail-in voting right before the 2020 election. Pure government control of social media can easily be used to silence criticism of incumbent leaders, or the sharing of information that is detrimental to the political success of an administration – and rules could be written in a way that shields the government from public criticism. Whatever regulatory decision is made will be in place not just under your administration, but under future Presidents in the years and decades to come, who may not have as much respect as you do for freedom of speech, the institutions of democracy, or the spirit in which these rules would be written. Clearly, there is no easy answer, but I believe my proposal is the best option.

My Proposal:

  1. A panel of regulators and industry experts should be convened and given 12-18 weeks to do the following:
    1. Identify different types of social media content that can be potentially harmful, dangerous, or should not be seen by certain audiences (eg Pornography, Conspiracy Theories, Fake political news etc)
    1. Within each type of content, the panel should identify every specific thing (item) that one could post (eg within Fake News, an item could be ‘Factually inaccurate misinformation over vaccines and public health that could lead to individuals making decision that could endanger their or others’ health).
    1. Within each item, the panel should come up with a list of various options on what companies should do with that content (eg No action, generic caption under the post correcting it, requiring you to click twice on the post before viewing it, being made to read a government article before reading it, removal of post, removal of post and suspension of account, permanent removal of post and account etc).
    1. The panel should also define exactly what would constitute that item, (eg Factually inaccurate information would have to mean stating something that can be disproven factually, like ‘No people have died of covid’. It would not constitute something like ‘I am sceptical of how effective lockdowns are’. Regulators would be tasked with drawing the lines on this, I am merely hypothesising).
    1. The panel should then choose a small selection of items that should be outright illegal – eg directly calling for or planning an attack on someone/ an institution, or spreading dangerous false information at a time of crisis that could lead to death. This list should be truly bi-partisan and should need to survive a 2/3 vote from the panel.
  2. The findings of the panel and the recommendations they have would then likely need to be drafted into a bill and passed by the congress.
  3. From here, in order to operate, social media companies must agree to immediately ban all items that are outright illegal as designated by the regulators, or have their platform shut down by the government. Then, for content not outright illegal but worthy of regulation (all other items that the regulatory panel comes up with), they must select exactly what response they will take from the panel’s list of options. Companies must make their designated responses public and users must agree to them in order to use the platform. Any company found not acting exactly as their agreement says, without altering their agreement and informing both users and the government about this alteration, should face legal consequences such as a shutdown, a temporary shutdown or a large fine.
  4. This regulatory panel should convene once every six months to review their policies and consider whether there are any new topics or items they should add – eg new conspiracy theories, or a new public health issue that could be subject to misinformation.
  5. Additionally – There should be a provision banning companies from developing algorithms that promote false, conspiratorial, or dangerous information over other types of content for financial gain. Regulators literate in technology should oversee the development of social media algorithms in order to enforce this.

I look forward to a response, and I truly hope that your administration pursues this proposal in some form. It leaves the decisions not to politically motivated representatives but a non-partisan commission, and does not infringe on the rights of companies by, except in the case of illegal content, allowing them to openly decide what, of the options, their responses would be. The issue of internet regulation cannot be left alone – it grows more pressing every day, and the 90s-era regulations, or lack of regulations, are not functional for how expansive the internet has become, and how real the consequences of its lack of regulation are. To push internet regulation down the priority list would be, in my view, dangerous and unwise, and I believe my proposal is the best way to address the issue. I deeply admire you and Vice President Harris, and thank you for everything you have done in service of the country. Your administration has the once-in-a-generation opportunity to be truly transformative, and I hope that it takes the opportunity to make a historic move forward on internet/ social media regulation, a move suited for the 21st century. Thank you very much for your time.

Kindest Regards,

Adam S Khan

25th Jan 2021

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