In summary

Policymakers, tech leaders and others need to develop the safest internet environment possible while protecting free speech rights.

By Drew Liebert, Special to CalMatters

Drew Liebert is an attorney who has worked in senior staff positions in the California Legislature for more than 25 years, as chief counsel to the Assembly Judiciary Committee and chief of staff to the Senate Majority Leader, liebertdrew@gmail.com.

California has always been a place of extraordinary contrasts. It has some of the wealthiest enclaves, and some of the poorest. It has some of the greatest diversity, and some of the most segregated neighborhoods. It is the birthplace of the world’s social media technology revolution and now is ground zero for its reckoning.

We are living in real time with the worrisome question whether the state’s social media companies – Facebook, Twitter, Snap and others – will continue to be the organizational weapons used to threaten our democracy. 

These past four years, and especially this past week, California’s social media platforms have underscored how their misuse through hate and conspiracy theories is at the heart of the greatest modern threat to our republic. Now we await the inauguration of our 46th president, nervously wondering if social media platforms, or other secret ones, will continue to be the communication weapons that will result in continuing violence and destabilization.

We are seeing that there are uncanny similarities between two very different modern technological marvels: social media and nuclear power. Both initially offered enormous promise for human improvement. Social media was predicted to connect billions of people to become a much more unified and peaceful planet; nuclear power promised to eliminate greenhouse gases and reverse climate change. The story for both has turned out to be far more complex, and troubling.  Nuclear power has the risk of destroying the planet, and now we are witnessing how California‘s social media platforms have the potential to divide our state and country.

As the home of Silicon Valley, California not only has a unique opportunity but a profound responsibility to quickly figure out how best to minimize the risks social media so obviously pose. This will surely be an exceedingly difficult task, and we must proceed with great caution, both to protect our cherished speech rights as well as the “golden egg” currently shielding our state from much more economic dislocation wrought by the pandemic.   

Because the social media companies are uniquely Californian, as are their leaders and engineers, our state policymakers must urgently collaborate with the tech community and privacy advocates to prioritize the careful development of effective new legal guardrails to reduce the risk that those who seek to sew hatred and revolution in this country can continue to do so.  

Some may argue that this is a power solely left to the federal government, but this is not the case. So far Congress has set very few limits in the Wild West of our internet ecosystem. Indeed, its principal blueprint has been to protect the social media ecosystem from legal responsibility for incendiary communications posted on its platforms pursuant to Section 230 of the ironically-entitled Communications Decency Act.

California, on the other hand, has led the way in the past several years in enacting substantial and controversial laws to require meaningful consumer privacy protections and develop a meaningful set of consumer digital rights. Their legality has not been challenged. It will thus be a natural continuation of the state’s ground-rule setting responsibility to quickly commence work with the state’s tech leaders, some of whom are now increasingly acknowledging the great dangers of their technologies, and privacy advocates to develop the safest internet environment possible while protecting speech and constitutional rights.

The urgency of this effort is irrefutable – not just to ensure the critically important economic viability of our tech sector and its enormous contribution to our stressed state coffers, but to do our best to curtail the ability of those who seek to destroy our communities and democracy.  It turns out this is the most important “communications decency act” California can take. 

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Drew Liebert has also written about how we should practice “physical distancing” not “social distancing.”

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