There are a lot of words being thrown around in the fight between Twitter and President Donald Trump. Bias. Censorship. Responsibility. Liability. Interference. Immunity. But there’s one word not being mentioned nearly enough: opportunity.
Most legal experts agree that the 9th Circuit will strike down Trump’s executive order removing liability protection for platforms such as Twitter, currently guaranteed under federal law by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. It’s possible the case will then be taken up by the Supreme Court, but the court will more likely punt the decision, saying the law has to be changed by an act of Congress, not by the executive branch.
No matter how it plays out, however, Trump has sparked a larger debate about the responsibilities of online publishers to moderate user content—and that debate may evolve in unpredictable ways. Congress will almost certainly take up a thorough review of Section 230—especially since both Trump and Joe Biden have called for its repeal. And while Trump embracing this issue could drive sympathetic Democrats in the opposite direction, there’s a good chance that we’re seeing the beginning of the end of an era for Silicon Valley. Even if Congress takes a few years to overturn Section 230, the specter of revoking immunity alone will encourage the Federal Trade Commission and state attorneys general to speed up their existing antitrust investigations into the major platforms. However you look at it, change is coming.
Investors in Twitter, Facebook, Google (owner of YouTube), and Snap (owner of Snapchat) are rightly worried about changes to Section 230 that could limit the ability of each platform to stoke controversy, attract users, and, as a result, attract advertisers. They should be. For years, social networks have relied on anger and outrage to fuel engagement, turning our virtual public squares into gladiatorial arenas. But let’s not confuse the interests of a few major tech behemoths with the interests of tech overall. If you’re a startup in the social networking space, competing with near-monopolies such as Facebook has been virtually impossible. Maybe not anymore.
What if a platform suddenly has to attract and engage users based not on stoking and amplifying controversy, but by offering them something of real value? Rather than just existing as a place to complain, vent, and self-righteously judge others, successful platforms in the post-Section 230 world would have to give users more than a quick emotional jolt. Maybe it’s spiritual connection. Maybe it’s enhanced forms of remote learning. Maybe it’s providing medical care. Maybe it’s something we’ve never even thought of. This is the time to find out.
As an investor in early-stage technology startups, I’m excited by the possibility of seeing something new. We’re often reluctant to look seriously at companies in the social networking space because competing with the incumbents seems virtually impossible. But Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and Snap aren’t going to be able to convert their business models overnight. They’re going to spend a few years fighting this issue in Congress and in the courts. And they’re going to do everything possible to prove that they’re not monopolistic and don’t deserve antitrust scrutiny and regulation, which will limit their willingness to squash innovation.
And that’s where the opportunity comes in: New platforms with missions and models that don’t require endless controversy and conflict may have an opening. There’s a window where venture capitalists may be more likely to invest. There’s a window to focus on individual, niche areas of social engagement without having to worry as much that Facebook or Snap is just going to hire 10 engineers to do the exact same thing. There’s now time to develop a product, attract customers, grow and evolve. Whatever happens next, the uncertainty around Section 230 creates a climate for innovation in social networking that hasn’t existed in years.
Yes, there are other, more obvious winners if Section 230 goes away. Traditional media outlets will have more leverage over advertisers if far fewer people feel compelled to constantly check Facebook or Twitter. Plaintiffs’ lawyers will have a field day filing suit against every platform where libelous content is now transmitted (this could easily extend beyond the obvious suspects to platforms such as Twitch and Slack).
But don’t let the pundits and big platforms tell you this is a battle between politics and tech. It’s a battle between a handful of high-profile politicians and a handful of high-profile platforms. Tech is not a monolith. What’s good for Facebook isn’t necessarily good for innovation. Trump is only pursuing this issue out of ego and spite, but limiting the reach of the giant platforms may be exactly what we need to create the next generation of truly great social networks.
Bradley Tusk is a venture capitalist, writer, philanthropist, and political strategist.