Democratic presidential contender and former Vice President Joe Biden called the Silicon Valley set “creeps,” said that Facebook and “other platforms” should lose their Section 230 protections under the Communications Decency Act, and argued that Mark Zuckerberg should face lawsuits and possibly criminal charges over political ads smearing him in an interview with the New York Times published on Friday.
Biden told the paper that he’s “never been a fan of Facebook” and called Zuckerberg a “real problem” that “knows better” than to allow politicians to lie in political ads. He indicated that he thinks Section 230 (a foundational building block of the modern internet that provides platforms broad immunity from liability for user-generated content) should be ravaged—though his phrasing left it very unclear as to whether he meant just for certain platforms or trashing it for the entire internet.
“... I’ve been in the view that not only should we be worrying about the concentration of power, but we should also be worried about the lack of privacy and them being exempt, which you’re not exempt,” Biden told the Times editorial board. “[The Times] can’t write something you know to be false and be exempt from being sued. But he can. The idea that it’s a tech company is that Section 230 should be revoked, immediately should be revoked, number one. For Zuckerberg and other platforms.”
(Zuckerberg is not the one writing the ads; instead, he profits from them and gains influence with politicians by acting as a digital conduit for their campaigns. He is, however, knowingly making the decision to allow others to run false information and profiting from it.)
Biden added 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. Whether he engaged in something and amounted to collusion that in fact caused harm that would, in fact, be equal to a criminal offense, that’s a different issue. That’s possible. That’s possible it could happen.” The former vice president continued, saying that Zuckerberg “finally took down those ads that Russia was running. All those bots about me.”
“He was getting paid a lot of money to put them up,” Biden added. “I learned three things. Number one, Putin doesn’t want me to be president. Number two, Kim Jong-un thinks I should be beaten to death like a rabid dog and three, this president of the United States is spending millions of dollars to try to keep me from being the nominee. I wonder why.”
(It’s unclear how North Korea is relevant to this issue, as it issued the statement slamming Biden via state media outlets rather than Facebook ads.)
Shortly after, Biden relayed that he was working on an intellectual property agreement for U.S. artists when tech industry leaders threatened to lobby against the deal, claiming they were the “economic engine” of the country. Biden also seemed to indicate that he believed violent video games were not art but some class of murder training simulators. It’s all a bit confusing but here’s that passage:
... One of the little creeps sitting around that table, who was a multi-—close to a billionaire—who told me he was an artist because he was able to come up with games to teach you how to kill people, you know the... [Times asks “Video games.”] Yeah, video games. And I was lectured by one of the senior leaders there that by saying if I insisted on what [Senator Patrick Leahy had] put together and we were, I thought we were going to fully support, that 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.
And then one of these righteous people said to me that, you know, ‘We are the economic engine of America. We are the ones.’” And fortunately I had done a little homework before I went and I said, you know, I find it fascinating. As I added up the seven outfits, everyone’s there but Microsoft. I said, you have fewer people on your payroll than all the losses that General Motors just faced in the last quarter, of employees. So don’t lecture me about how you’ve created all this employment.
Biden may be right on the merits of whether the tech industry is really powering the economy or sucking value out of it, but it’s not clear what meeting he is referring to.
The former vice president oversaw a roundtable discussion on digital copyright enforcement in 2009, but corporate attendees present were listed by Ars Technica as the heads of NBC, Sony Pictures, Warner Music Group, HarperCollins, the Motion Pictures Association of America, and the Recording Industry Association of America. Other attendees included News Corp., Universal Music, Walt Disney, and Viacom. Biden also headed a separate discussion on video game violence in 2013 after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, in advance of which he referred to game studios as “scumbags.” (Biden later said he didn’t think violent video games were the root cause of shootings but portrayed his desires as a matter of good corporate citizenship; Donald Trump’s administration has doubled down on the scientifically unsupported idea that violent video games result in mass shootings.)
“The point is, there’s an arrogance about it, an overwhelming arrogance that we are, we are the ones,” Biden told the Times referring to the powers that be in tech. “We can do what we want to do. I disagree. Every industrial revolution, every major technological breakthrough, every single one... It’s 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?” he concluded. “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 it’s a responsibility of government to make sure it is not abused. Not abused. And so this is one of those areas where I think it’s 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. That’s close to criminal.”
Biden finished his answer with an allusion to parenthood and that it was “very concerning” what children “in fact... can see and not see, and whether or not what they’re seeing is true or not true. It matters.”
Biden’s campaign did not respond to questions from Gizmodo about whether the candidate supports modifying the Communications Decency Act to eliminate Facebook’s immunity or revoking Section 230 entirely. We’ve also asked the campaign for clarification on which meetings Biden’s anecdote about a major video game developer came from, or whether raising the issue in connection with regulation and liability indicated that he believed they were partially to blame for violence such as mass shootings or should be held legally responsible for such. We’ll update this article if we hear back.
If Section 230 was revoked, it would have massive implications for platforms like Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and a wide swathe of apps and websites ranging from Tinder and Yelp to TikTok. Currently, civil lawsuits involving user-generated content on those platforms are typically (though not exclusively) directed at the users who are uploading the content in the first place.
Revoking Section 230 could create a situation for platforms in which they might be held responsible for a user engaging in slander or other civil offenses; at the scale these platforms operate, the resulting liabilities could quickly become unsustainable. The section also does not protect just the platforms referred to by Biden but core elements of internet infrastructure that handle client traffic like web hosts, security services like CloudFlare, and internet providers. That’s why organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation consider Section 230 one of the most important laws upholding free dialogue and innovation on the internet (and why calls to eliminate Section 230 have often been interpreted as being motivated primarily by base political impulses).
“Section 230 obviously benefits not just Facebook,” Facebook spokesperson Andy Stone told CNBC. “It’s not just foundational to the internet, it’s what allows The New York Times to host reader comments on their websites.”
Alternative regulatory regimes proposed for major internet platforms have included more stringent honesty and transparency in advertising rules, stricter privacy rules like Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation, and a prescriptive regulatory approach that emphasizes goals like transparency, user safety, and fighting hate speech and is aimed at building institutional capacity to supervise meeting those goals rather than simply imposing them. Notably, Facebook has called for more regulation but mostly in the form of limited rules that would not significantly interfere with anything it does now.