An anti-revenge-porn bill that had been weaving its way through the New York Senate died last week after a push by Google to stop it. As The Post reported, the bill “would have made nonconsensual dissemination of sexually explicit images a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail” and “would have also helped victims sue Web hosts to remove the offending images.”
Google has come a long way from its original mission of “don’t be evil,” a clause in its code of conduct that it removed in May.
Also last week, actor Peter Fonda tweeted that 12-year-old Barron Trump, President Trump’s son, should be “ripped from his mother’s arms and put in a cage with pedophiles.” He also tweeted that people should surround the schools attended by the children of “ICE and regular border patrol agents.” He ended up apologizing for his “vulgar” comments.
Peter Fonda is still on Twitter despite those tweets, last seen comparing White House adviser Stephen Miller to Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels and alleging that any missing migrant girls are in his basement. To be sure, there’s nothing illegal there — most people will understand he’s being hysterical and glib, and Stephen Miller is a big boy who can handle attacks like that. But Twitter has to ask itself whether it wants to be in the business of allowing insane rants like that on its platform by someone who has already stepped way over the line.
Which brings us to the larger question: Do companies like Twitter or Google even have lines anymore?
Both companies have nice-sounding corporate-responsibility statements. Twitter focuses on promoting an open exchange of ideas and supporting “organizations that tackle online safety issues such as bullying, abuse, gender-based harassment, and hateful conduct.”
It’s clear it doesn’t plan to become one of the organizations that tackles those online safety issues itself.
For Google, it’s about philanthropy and vague social-justice causes.
Neither company will change unless it’s forced to. So should they be forced to?
On the one hand, this is the free market at work. But the word “free” carries some extra significance in this case. The very fact that we don’t directly pay for Twitter or Google is part of why they get away with allowing despicable behavior on their sites in the first place — hey, it’s free! What do you want from them?
Well, while the services are free, their management shouldn’t be consequence-free. Google should be held liable if it doesn’t remove revenge porn from its searches, as the company promised to do in 2015, but vehemently opposes any legislation to force its hand.
And Twitter has to be culpable for threats people tweet. The company doesn’t get to look the other way while people use its platforms to torment others.
Fonda’s comments weren’t “vulgar” as he described them; they bordered on being calls to action to harass, or worse, the children of his political opponents. And Twitter did nothing about it.
Fonda is just one famous person making these kinds of threats. There are plenty of other anonymous accounts doing the same. For threats that are realistic, Twitter should have to report them to authorities and also be held liable if it doesn’t and something happens.
These companies have to spend the money to make sure these abuses don’t occur on, or because of, their platforms. Revenge porn or kidnapping/death threats can’t be a part of ordinary online interaction.
Even with these “free” services, the users are the clients. Twitter has nothing if people stop using its platform.
Google relies on maintaining its dominance in the search market to keep its advertisers. The situation isn’t static. Facebook learned this the hard way after the 2016 election.
Sure, the company could throw up its hands and say it can’t stop “fake news” sites from infiltrating its platform, or have Cambridge Analytica misuse data from its site. But a massive outcry led to people dropping Facebook en masse. Facebook had to work hard to get those people back. A hazy ad campaign about the importance of real connections on Facebook followed CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony to Congress.
Twitter and Google aren’t immune from the same repercussions. The public needs to tell them to shape up or we’ll go elsewhere. And then we have to be ready to do just that.