Obama Takes Up Mantle of Social Media Regulatory Oversight

Former President Barack Obama sounded a warning against unregulated Big Tech in a speech last week at Stanford University near Palo Alto, California. Cautioning that the power of social media giants to curate information has “turbocharged” political polarization, Obama said the imbalance of power threatened the very pillars of global democracy itself. “Tech companies need to be more transparent about how they operate,” Obama said. “So much of the conversation around disinformation is focused on what people post. The bigger issue is what content these platforms promote.” 

Weighing in on how to prevent the spread of disinformation, Obama said the proprietary algorithms of tech companies should be subjected “to the same kind of regulatory oversight that ensured the safety of cars, food and other consumer products,” reports The New York Times.

The conference was hosted by Stanford’s Cyber Policy Center. Attendees included “prominent scholars, former government officials and representatives of several tech companies.”

The former president spoke in support of revising Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a legal shield that protects social media platforms from legal liability for user-generated content. Supporters of Section 230 revision believe diluting the protection would force companies to be more proactive in curbing the spread of misinformation as well as dangerous speech and the potentially harmful consequences it generates.

While praising the Internet’s transformative benefits, Obama urged media platforms to put social responsibility before the quest for profits. “These companies need to have some other North Star than just making money and increasing profit shares,” he said.

“He cited his own effective use of social media as a candidate but also his frustration with how Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, used social media to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential election,” NYT reports.

“What does still nag at me was my failure to fully appreciate how susceptible we had become to lies and conspiracy theories,” noted Obama, “despite being a target of disinformation myself” — an allusion to falsehoods spread on social media about his country of birth and other election misinformation.

“Obama’s campaign — the timing of which stemmed not from a single cause, people close to him said, but a broad concern about the damage to democracy’s foundations — comes in the middle of a fierce but inconclusive debate over how best to restore trust online,” notes The New York Times in a separate article.

“I think it is reasonable for us as a society to have a debate and then put in place a combination of regulatory measures and industry norms that leave intact the opportunity for these platforms to make money but say to them that there’s certain practices you engage in that we don’t think are good for society,” suggested Obama during another speech earlier this month organized by the University of Chicago and The Atlantic.