Results tagged “Gab.ai”

September 26, 2017 10:15 AM

Section 230: Google's Shield and Its Sword

The irony of Google's riskless "net neutrality" campaign to impose competitive restrictions on other companies, we've noted here and here, is its claims that rules are necessary to prevent ISPs from engaging in the types of monopoly abuse that only it and a few other privileged platforms can profitably employ.  Google's current fight--against lawmakers' efforts to impose responsibility on websites that actively facilitate, promote, and profit from sex trafficking--contains a similar element of hypocrisy.  The principle that Google is fighting against--that websites should bear responsibility for the activities they promote/knowingly tolerate from 3rd parties--is a principle that Google itself has used to exclude competitors from its monopoly Android platform


Section 230 and SESTA

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act ("Sect. 230") was passed to limit the potentially devastating effect on the Internet development resulting from potential liability of  Internet service providers held responsible for defamatory statements made by their users.  Sect. 230 states that no provider/user of an "interactive computer service" (i.e., a website that provides access to third party content) shall be "treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by [a third party]." 47 U.S.C. Sect. 230.  The scope of Sect. 230, as applied by the courts, is so vast as to be virtually unlimited; shielding websites, no matter how complicit they were in the content they distributed, from virtually any tort or state criminal law liability. See, e.g., criticisms here, here, and here.

The Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act of 2017 ("SESTA"), introduced by Sens. Rob Portman (R-OH) and Claire McCaskill this past summer, has nearly 30 bipartisan co-sponsors. Earlier this year, the two released a Staff Report of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations describing the extent to which the website Backpage.com was actively involved in, and profiting from, the sexual exploitation of children throughout the world--all without any fear of legal consequences.  The proposed legislation would chip away--ever so slightly--at the broad immunity conferred on "information service providers" for the content of third party speakers under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.       

The prospect of losing any of its immunity has led Google to mobilize its academics and third parties to fight tooth-and-nail in its defense of Backpage.comYet, though it understands the importance of a website being able to distance itself from the speech of its users, Google recently removed another app, Gab.ai, ("Gab") from its Play Store because, Google claimed, the site did not display the ability to sufficiently control the speech of its users. 

Tolerance for Intolerance

Upstart social media site Gab.ai ("Gab") was founded in 2016 by a vocal Trump supporter and a Turkish Muslim who ardently opposed Trump's candidacy.  See, Complaint of Gab Ai Inc., v. Google, LLC, E.D. Pa. (filed Sept 14, 2017) ("Complaint") at paras. 7-17.  Concerned that Twitter seemed to be excluding speakers based on socially unpopular points of view, the two friends sought to create a more libertarian social media network.   

Gab's platform was made available to beta users on a private invitation basis in the second half of 2016, and was publicly released in May 2017.  Complaint para 10.  Gab "does not sell access to or otherwise 'monetize' its users' personal information."  Complaint 48.  Rather than selling advertising, Gab plans to support the service through paid "GabPro" premium memberships.

Gab is modeled off of Twitter, though it allows its users 300 characters, but Gab also includes some functions from Reddit, and unique features that "'provide people with the tools they need to create and shape their own experience.'" Complaint paras 19-29.  Thus, although Gab has developed a reputation as being more welcoming of "far right" and "conspiracy theory" types, its users can choose to exclude content that they do not wish to see.

Gab maintains community guidelines which prohibit "illegal pornography and terrorism; the posting of confidential information of others; communications calling for acts of violence; promotion of acts of self-harm or cruelty; the use of threatening language; and any other behavior that clearly infringes on the safety of another user or individual." Complaint at 31 (emphasis added).  Moreover, users must abide by its terms of service and privacy policy.  Gab's policies meet all formal requirements for distribution through the two leading app stores.

Gab's app was approved for distribution to Android users through Google's Play Store since its public launch in May. Gab quickly surpassed its founders' expectations and now has 268,000 users, including 3,000 paid accounts, and reached the $1.07 million SEC limit on "crowdfunded" offerings in only 38 days. Complaint 10, 53,and 55.

Intolerance for Tolerance

In the week following the recent Charlottesville tragedy, on August 17th, Google notified Gab that it had "'suspended and removed [Gab's app] from Google Play as a policy strike because it violates the hate speech policy.'" Complaint 138.  Gab contends that Google's purported justification was a cynical attempt to avoid press scrutiny at a time of national concern over extremist groups; and a mere pretext to eliminate a competitor with a business plan (no advertising, no sharing of user's personal information) that could only threaten, and never benefit, Google's advertising business.

Instead, Gab notes that Google well knew that Gab's app does not advocate "hate" (or any other) speech, but consists entirely of user-generated content ("UCG").  To the contrary Gab explains that it has always been compliant with Google's only formal policy for UCG-oriented apps: that such apps must "take additional precautions in order to provide a policy compliant app experience, requiring apps to define and prohibit objectionable content via terms of service, implement a system to report content, and block users." Complaint para 144.

Later, Google offered further justification (not provided to Gab) for its decision in an email to Ars Technica:

In order to be on the Play Store, social networking apps need to demonstrate a sufficient level of moderation, including for content that encourages violence and advocates hate against groups of people. This is a long-standing rule and clearly stated in our developer policies.

Complaint 140.  Gab notes, however, that this "moderation" requirement cannot be found anywhere in Google's developer policies. Gab also notes that Google would not, and does not, place any such requirement on other "social news" apps like Google+, YouTube, or its commercial partner, Twitter.  The only purpose of Google's arguing for such a requirement, Gab argues, is to raise the costs of entry, and to subject competitors to the risk of losing their Section 230 immunity.  

Policies Are Made for Exclusion Exceptions

Gab's contention that Google's policies are being unevenly applied is beyond dispute.  The most cursory search (via Bing) reveals that not only do other social news sites (e.g., Google's partner Twitter) not filter hate speech or pornography, but they actually sell access to the "hate speakers" to their advertisers.


Gab alleges that Google's "policies" exist only to be strategically applied to apps that compete with/offer little value to Google's other monopoly services.  Twitter's value to Google is obvious by virtue of the parties' relationship predicated on advertising-search "cooperation" (non-competition).  Gab, on the other hand, seems valuable only for features Google/Twitter want to copy--like the higher character limit (280) Twitter announced yesterday. Google--by virtue of its access to Twitter's "Firehose" of user data--knows that its partner either fails to moderate, or actively exploits, the hate speech of its own users. If this were really a concern for Google, Twitter would have been out of the Play Store long ago.

The most interesting thing is not that Google opportunistically applies its "social concerns" to exclude rivals.  Google is nothing if not brazen.  After all, this is the company that has its chief lobbyist blog about how much it cares about sex trafficking victims (in fairness, Google was recognized for a $3 million donation in 2013 to help NGO's better share information), while spending twice that much this summer fighting SESTA. 

Google Lobbying 2Q 17 v2.jpg


What is surprising, though (even for Google), is that Google would use the exact same justification to exclude a competitive app--moderation of speech--that it is telling Congress would ruin the Internet if it were applied to known bad actors.  The thing that hurt Gab the most may not have been so much the speech of its users, but the fact that that speech is unlikely to generate any profit for Google. After all, the Play Store is a business and curates its content accordingly.

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