For more than two hours on Easter Sunday, Facebook hosted a video of an elderly man being killed. Robert Godwin, 74, was out in his Cleveland neighborhood looking for cans to recycle when police say Steve Stevens, 37, a case manager at a behavioral health agency, came upon him and shot him in the head.
The final moments of the life of Godwin, a snowy-haired, bespectacled former foundry worker, are immortalized as a testament to the terror of the digital age. His life, which included a family of nine children and 14 grandchildren, ended in a snuff film, to be shared and viewed in perpetuity. For more than two hours, people on Facebook watched, until finally someone reported the video and the company disabled Stevens’ account.
“We know we need to do better,” Justin Osofsky, Facebook’s VP of global operations, wrote in a post Monday following criticism of the company’s handling, or mishandling, of the video of the slaying. It sounded like the type of thing tech companies say when users experience glitches in their platforms – oh, so sorry, we’ll get on that right away.
But Facebook hasn’t yet proposed to do anything substantive about the problem of its site becoming a kind of online Roman Coliseum, a public stage for murder, torture, and rape. When they say “we,” they actually mean “you” – or us, their users. For what they have said they will do is to tinker with the speed and effectiveness with which users can report offensive content.
It is on us, not them, apparently, to solve their very deep and disturbing ethical problem: that of being a platform where anyone can post an atrocity, despite the company’s stated policy against images or videos “for sadistic pleasure or to celebrate or glorify violence.”
Facebook Live product director Daniel Danker told The Washington Post: “We largely rely on the community to flag live moments that are unsafe or otherwise fall outside of our community standards.” Facebook has consistently declined to divulge data regarding the numbers of people or amount of resources it invests in monitoring content.
Why don’t tech companies do more to ensure that videos like the Cleveland killing don’t appear online? One possible reason, just as cynical as it sounds, is because they enjoy protection from lawsuits through the Communications Decency Act of 1996.
Section 230 of the CDA protects internet service providers and users from legal action based on third party postings, saying, “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”
In effect, this immunizes both internet service providers and social media companies from liability for wrongful acts committed by users of their sites, even if the companies neglect to do anything after learning of offensive postings. All of which means that if, say, the family of Robert Godwin sought to sue Facebook for hosting a video of their beloved father being murdered, they would have a tough time making Facebook pay for its part in the tragedy.
In the wake of this killing, and other shocking abuses, it seems it is time for lawmakers to revisit the Communications Decency Act. In 2013, the Attorneys General of 47 states appealed to Congress to remove the criminal and civil immunity in Section 230; however, there was pushback from civil liberties advocates, who argued that making online service providers liable for third party postings would hinder their ability to provide platforms for the expression of the First Amendment.
How, though, does a video of the killing of Robert Godwin qualify as anyone’s conception of freedom of speech? On the contrary, Godwin’s voice was forever silenced. At a gathering honoring the “sweet” man, his son Marsean Robert Godwin told mourners: “That man killed my daddy for no reason.” No reason, perhaps, other than knowing that by doing so he would get a lot of views on Facebook.