Data Responsibility

With Great Technology Comes Great Responsibility

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In 1996, Congress passed the first major overhaul of U.S. telecommunications law in more than 60 years. Tucked away in Title V of the Telecommunications Act was a provision that granted immunity from liability for providers of an “interactive computer service” who publish content from others.

At the time, the internet had just 36 million users. It supported a budding, fragile industry with great potential, but one that needed protection to grow and flourish. Twenty-two years have passed. There are now more than four billion active internet users on Earth. Companies that were once scrappy start-ups are now often considered the most world’s valuable businesses. Internet media companies are primary sources of news and information for billions of people, with more power to influence opinion and behavior than the telephone, newspaper or television ever had in their heydays.

Responsibility is the key to preserving society’s trust in technology.

Yet unlike those industries, internet media companies are subject to little regulation, and enjoy a nearly total exemption from legal liability for what happens on their platforms. Over the last year, it has become increasingly clear that something is out of balance in that equation. Governments, advertisers, and even ordinary users are demanding that companies take more responsibility for the societal effects their services can have on children, on civic dialogue, on elections, or in facilitating criminal or terrorist activity. People want to know how their data is being used, who owns it, where it is stored, and how the algorithms that give them information work.

At IBM, we’ve recognized over more than a century of doing business that responsibility is the key to preserving society’s trust in technology. That is why we have long lived by, and have recently published, a set of principles and practices called Data Responsibility @ IBM, that make clear how our company will show responsible stewardship as we usher in new technologies to help business and society work smarter.

We also believe that responsible technology companies should be in the lead as governments consider common-sense changes to the balance of regulatory and liability rules that govern the data economy. That’s why IBM recently has taken positions on:

  • The Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act of 2017 (SESTA) – sponsored by Senators Portman and Blumenthal in the Senate and recently passed by the House as FOSTA with leadership from Representatives Wagner, Walters and Maloney, this measure will allow law enforcement authorities and victims to take legal action against internet media companies who knowingly facilitate reprehensible human trafficking content and activity on their platforms (more here). IBM believes that sensibly crafted, limited exceptions to the liability exemption contained in Section 230 of the Communications Act are appropriate to help deal with this kind of online criminal behavior.
  • The Honest Ads Act – IBM supports legislation sponsored by Senators Warner, Klobuchar and McCain that would require transparency and disclosure for online political advertising, just as has long been required for political ads on television, radio, and in print.
  • Intermediary Liability in Trade Agreements – As the overwhelming FOSTA vote in the House clearly shows, there is no longer a U.S. consensus that internet media companies should enjoy automatic blanket immunity from legal liability. It simply does not make sense to export a legal model that is increasingly being questioned here at home. Therefore, IBM will inform the governments of the United States, Canada, and Mexico that we oppose including intermediary liability protection, such as that contained in Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, in updates now being negotiated to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

Technology can be an enormous force for good. But companies that innovate to make life better must also embrace their responsibility to usher in new technology in ways that are transparent and readily explainable. They must continually earn trust through accountability. For more than a century, IBM has done just that because we know that our clients – and society – expect no less.

-Christopher A. Padilla, Vice President, IBM Government and Regulatory Affairs

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