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How a Democrat plan to reform Section 230 could backfire

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How a Democrat plan to reform Section 230 could backfire


Many of the changes put forward in the bill, which is known as the SAFE TECH Act, are significant. Right now, the law shields platforms such as Facebook and Twitter from most liability for messages written by their users; the new bill strips many of those protections away. Some are based on existing federal laws: for example, that immunity would not apply to online speech which violated civil rights or cyberstalking laws. The proposals also remove protection for any kind of paid speech, such as advertising.

This, say supporters, is important and welcome progress.

“There is no legal mechanism that has done more to insulate intermediaries from legal accountability for distributing, amplifying, and delivering unlawful content and facilitating dangerous antisocial connects,” says Olivier Sylvain, a professor of law at Fordham University who says he likes the bill—and particularly its potential to regulate online advertising.

When platforms moderate racist, misogynistic or extremist content, he says, “it is largely due to fear of bad publicity or the occasional pushback they get from weary advertisers.”

But many experts think that the reforms are misguided—and could make the situation far worse.

“What both politicians and the public are getting wrong,” says Eric Goldman, professor of law at Santa Clara University, is that “Section 230 reform won’t stick it to Big Tech. Section 230 reform will deepen the incumbents’ competitive moats to make it even harder for new entrants to compete.”

“What services do they think will still qualify?

Goldman is among a large number of legal experts and industry observers who worry that the proposals will not force larger companies to behave better, but will instead crush smaller companies under the weight of complaints and expensive lawsuits. 

Critics are concerned that larger companies will simply start filtering out many kinds of legitimate speech to avoid lawsuits, and that the changes aimed at advertising will potentially harm anyone providing paid services, such as web hosting companies or email providers.

“If we don’t have clear and convincing answers to those questions, then the bill creates potentially dire consequences for the internet we know and love.”

Eric Goldman, Santa Clara University

“My question for the drafters is: what services do they think will still qualify for Section 230 if this reform goes through; how likely is it that those services will do what the members of Congress want; and will those services be able to afford to remain in business?” asks Goldman. “If we don’t have clear and convincing answers to those questions, then the bill creates potentially dire consequences for the internet we know and love.”

Despite this, the proposals will be impossible to ignore because the Democrats are in effective control of the White House and both houses of Congress. That means this has to be taken seriously even if it has flaws, says Berin Szoka, the founder and president of the thinktank TechFreedom.

“Everyone gets very frustrated because there are so many stupid takes from Republicans, but this is a much better, more serious attempt to change the law,” he says. “But that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea, or that they’ve thought through what they’re doing.”

“Open the door to loopholes”

Broadly speaking, both major American political parties believe that social media should be better regulated, and that Section 230 is the key to doing so. But their reasoning and suggestions of what to do are very different. 

The left thinks changes to the law are required to increase the responsibility of social media platforms for offensive, abusive, or illegal content they host and promote. The right, meanwhile, is largely concerned with claims of censorship, and believes that private companies should be forced into a stance of political neutrality to protect conservative speech. This difference is one reason that both sides appeared to exist in almost entirely different worlds when tech CEOs were hauled to testify to the Senate last year.

The problem of online abuse and misinformation became impossible to ignore over the last year, with harmful online conspiracy theories fueling the pandemic, and political lies threatening the election. That culminated in January, when the violent assault on the US Capitol was fanned by online groups and by Trump himself.

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Donald ’67, SM ’69, and Glenda Mattes

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Donald ’67, SM ’69, and Glenda Mattes


Don Mattes started giving to the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory at MIT before he himself was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Since his death in 2020, his wife, Glenda, has carried forward Don’s passion for its work. “My wish is that no one ever has to go through the horrors of Alzheimer’s disease ever again,” Glenda says. The Matteses have also supported the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT.

Legacy sparks hope. An early key employee of Andover Controls who later ran the company’s European operations, Don visited six continents with Glenda during their 30-year marriage—often to ski or bicycle. “Don’s was a life well lived, just too short,” Glenda says. The couple made provisions in their estate plan to support the Picower Institute. After Don died, Glenda made a gift to MIT of real estate that established both endowed and current-use funds there to support research on Alzheimer’s, dementia, and other neurodegenerative diseases. Glenda is a cancer survivor, and the gift also endowed a fund in the couple’s name at the Koch Institute.

Great discoveries being made at MIT: “Don always said the best thing he got from MIT was being taught how to think,” Glenda says. “MIT is an amazing place. Picower Institute director Li-Huei Tsai and her team are doing more than looking for a treatment for Alzheimer’s. They’re looking for the root cause of the disease. I am also fascinated with the Koch’s melding of engineering and biology. The chances they are going to solve the cancer issue someday are very high.” 

Help MIT build a better world.
For more information, contact Amy Goldman: (617) 253-4082;  goldmana@mit.edu. Or visit giving.mit.edu/planned-giving.

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Investing in women pays off

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Investing in women pays off


“Starting a business is a privilege,” says Burton O’Toole, who worked at various startups before launching and later selling AdMass, her own marketing technology company. The company gave her access to the HearstLab program in 2016, but she soon discovered that she preferred the investment aspect and became a vice president at HearstLab a year later. “To empower some of the smartest women to do what they love is great,” she says. But in addition to rooting for women, Burton O’Toole loves the work because it’s a great market opportunity. 

“Research shows female-led teams see two and a half times higher returns compared to male-led teams,” she says, adding that women and people of color tend to build more diverse teams and therefore benefit from varied viewpoints and perspectives. She also explains that companies with women on their founding teams are likely to get acquired or go public sooner. “Despite results like this, just 2.3% of venture capital funding goes to teams founded by women. It’s still amazing to me that more investors aren’t taking this data more seriously,” she says. 

Burton O’Toole—who earned a BS from Duke in 2007 before getting an MS and PhD from MIT, all in mechanical engineering—has been a “data nerd” since she can remember. In high school she wanted to become an actuary. “Ten years ago, I never could have imagined this work; I like the idea of doing something in 10 more years I couldn’t imagine now,” she says. 

When starting a business, Burton O’Toole says, “women tend to want all their ducks in a row before they act. They say, ‘I’ll do it when I get this promotion, have enough money, finish this project.’ But there’s only one good way. Make the jump.”

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Preparing for disasters, before it’s too late

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Preparing for disasters, before it’s too late


All too often, the work of developing global disaster and climate resiliency happens when disaster—such as a hurricane, earthquake, or tsunami—has already ravaged entire cities and torn communities apart. But Elizabeth Petheo, MBA ’14, says that recently her work has been focused on preparedness. 

It’s hard to get attention for preparedness efforts, explains Petheo, a principal at Miyamoto International, an engineering and disaster risk reduction consulting firm. “You can always get a lot of attention when there’s a disaster event, but at that point it’s too late,” she adds. 

Petheo leads the firm’s projects and partnerships in the Asia-Pacific region and advises globally on international development and humanitarian assistance. She also works on preparedness in the Asia-Pacific region with the United States Agency for International Development. 

“We’re doing programming on the engagement of the private sector in disaster risk management in Indonesia, which is a very disaster-prone country,” she says. “Smaller and medium-sized businesses are important contributors to job creation and economic development. When they go down, the impact on lives, livelihoods, and the community’s ability to respond and recover effectively is extreme. We work to strengthen their own understanding of their risk and that of their surrounding community, lead them through an action-planning process to build resilience, and link that with larger policy initiatives at the national level.”

Petheo came to MIT with international leadership experience, having managed high-profile global development and risk mitigation initiatives at the World Bank in Washington, DC, as well as with US government agencies and international organizations leading major global humanitarian responses and teams in Sri Lanka and Haiti. But she says her time at Sloan helped her become prepared for this next phase in her career. “Sloan was the experience that put all the pieces together,” she says.

Petheo has maintained strong connections with MIT. In 2018, she received the Margaret L.A. MacVicar ’65, ScD ’67, Award in recognition of her role starting and leading the MIT Sloan Club in Washington, DC, and her work as an inaugural member of the Graduate Alumni Council (GAC). She is also a member of the Friends of the MIT Priscilla King Gray Public Service Center.

“I believe deeply in the power and impact of the Institute’s work and people,” she says. “The moment I graduated, my thought process was, ‘How can I give back, and how can I continue to strengthen the experience of those who will come after me?’”

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