Wikipedia founder on Section 230: Facebook can't be liable for posts by 'somebody’s crazy uncle'

As Big Tech faces increasing scrutiny over disinformation online, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales said Facebook (FB) and Twitter (TWTR) face a more difficult challenge over content moderation than the crowd-sourced online encyclopedia he launched in 2001. 

But he said lawmakers should not do away with Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a 1996 law that protects companies from legal liability over most content posted by third parties and gives them freedom to moderate that content.

“The truth is, a lot of people have obnoxious ideas and bad ideas, and I don't think that's necessarily the responsibility of Facebook and Twitter," Wales told Yahoo Finance Live on Wednesday. "Until they get into the perspective of when they are promoting bad ideas, when they are promoting disinformation, then I think they do have a moral responsibility to think about that. But we can't make Facebook legally liable for everything that somebody’s crazy uncle types on the internet.”

During a Senate hearing Tuesday, lawmakers continued a series of ongoing Congressional probes into what, if any, legislation might improve upon the moderation liberties bestowed on internet platforms by Section 230. The law has been attacked from the right and the left, with many conservatives saying it allows censorship and liberals contending it lets websites host dangerous content without repercussions.

'Very, very different in our moderation practices'

Big Tech platforms face more criticism than Wikipedia over their moderation practices because they use different moderation methods from the website that Wales founded, he said.

“We’re very, very different in our moderations practices compared to, really, anybody else,” he explained. 

Rather than follow the typical model, which is to employ staff members and artificial intelligence to make decisions about which content is or is not blocked, Wikipedia is moderated by its community. 

“So our community makes all the rules," he said. "Our community enforces the rules.”

In addition, he said the advertising-based business models of Big Tech social media platforms are problematic because they promote algorithms that amplify discord.

“If your sweet grandmother posts a nice picture of a dog, it probably doesn't get much comment,” Wales said. “But some racist jerk in your family posts something obnoxious, probably everybody jumps on to yell at them, and then suddenly we've got engagement, suddenly we’ve got time on the platform…”

While Wales doesn’t think social media platforms would agree that their business models rely on controversial content, he pointed out that today's algorithms don't necessarily optimize for accuracy.

“I think if you've got an advertising only business model, where you only make money when people are clicking and staying for a long time on your site, then it's very easy to fall into a trap of letting your algorithms optimize for that, with no real regard for the truth,” he said.

To control misinformation and disinformation, rather than reforming Section 230, Wales suggests strengthening financial transparency rules so that consumers know who's funding ads, including political ads. He also advocates for transparency in algorithm design, which he said could disrupt micro-targeted advertisements and content that promotes radicalization.

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Alexis Keenan is a legal reporter for Yahoo Finance and former litigation attorney. Follow Alexis Keenan on Twitter @alexiskweed.

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