NewsGuard Proposes a Simple Reform to Protect Online Users from Hoaxes, Misinformation and Other Harms
Restoring a basic legal duty of care for the content that platforms distribute would hold digital platforms to the same legal standards that apply to other industries while keeping the government out of the business of regulating content
(October 28, 2020—New York City) Numerous proposals to reform the legal obligations of the Silicon Valley digital platforms are being considered on a bipartisan basis in Washington, D.C., including as a way to limit the harms people suffer from hoaxes and misinformation. Both President Trump and Democratic candidate Joe Biden have called for reforming or repealing Sec. 230 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which created blanket immunities for what was published on the digital platforms.
NewsGuard proposes a simple amendment to the current law, based on its experience countering misinformation and hoaxes online. NewsGuard informs online users about the nature of the sources they see online, including through social media and search, by rating and providing Nutrition Labels for all news and information websites that account for 95% of engagement.
NewsGuard’s simple but far-reaching proposal would amend the law to restore standard duties of care to digital platforms that would have to be met for them to continue to enjoy the Sec. 230 immunity for harm caused by content on their platforms. To continue to be immune from liability, the amendment requires that they make good-faith efforts to protect users on their platforms. If not, they would lose the immunity from liability that they now enjoy.
NewsGuard’s proposal would add this new clause—indicated in italics—to Section 230(c)(2):
No provider or user of an interactive computer service that in good faith attempts to fulfill its responsibility to block or screen potentially harmful content or provide information to users that such content may be harmful shall be held liable on account of—shall be held liable on account of—
- Any action voluntarily taken in good faith to restrict access to or availability of material that the provider or user considers to be obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable, whether or not such material is constitutionally protected;
- Any action taken to enable or make available to information content providers or others the technical means to restrict access to material described in paragraph (1).
This change would create a duty of care on the part of the digital platforms. This obligation could be met by changes in how the platforms operate, including in how they remove, suppress or otherwise affect content on their platforms, such as news and information. Among the steps they could take would be to provide their users with transparent information about the trustworthiness of sources on their platforms, transparently identifying hoaxes and disclosing debunking of hoaxes, and “pre-bunking” hoaxes by warning readers to proceed with caution when they see a hoax in their social media feed or in their search results.
“The results are in on a 25-year social experiment: What happens when a new industry is granted an exemption from duties of care created over the centuries by the common law? The answer is the industry responds to the incentives it was given, acting as if it were exempt from responsibility, because under the law it is,” said NewsGuard co-CEO Gordon Crovitz.
“The internet has many valuable features, but, as we can now so clearly see, in one key area U.S. law went beyond encouraging innovation on the internet to invite mischief ,” said NewsGuard co-CEO Steven Brill. “This exemption from the common law duty of care has led to the cesspool of hoaxes, misinformation and conspiracy theories that too often dominate social media feeds and search results.”
Mr. Brill and Mr. Crovitz, journalists who co-founded NewsGuard, are graduates of the Yale Law School.
The proposed amendment is consistent with other proposals to reform the internet. The U.S. Department of Justice in September proposed reforms to Sec. 230 under which the platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and TikTok would have to disclose their criteria for moderating content, show that they apply their criteria consistently—not on “deceptive or pretextual grounds”—and give publishers “timely notice describing with particularity the provider’s reasonable factual basis for the restriction of access and a meaningful opportunity to respond.”
These standards to establish reasonable steps to comply with a duty of care are similar to proposals being considered in the UK in its “Online Harms White Paper.” Likewise, the European Commission has promulgated a voluntary “Code of Practice on Disinformation” that includes the requirement that signatories such as Facebook and Twitter provide information based on transparent journalistic standards about the trustworthiness of sources of news and information on their platforms.
Yet as of now, the digital platforms are not meeting the requirements for earning the “good faith” safe harbor against liability that would be required by these proposals in the U.S,, U.K. and Europe.
In contrast, NewsGuard’s journalistically trained analysts rate news and information sites based on nine fully disclosed criteria, including credibility, providing trustworthiness scores of 0-100, with green and red ratings, with a Nutrition Label explaining the ratings in detail and including responses from publishers. In addition, NewsGuard maintains a transparent catalog detailing all the current leading misinformation and hoaxes online in a product called the Misinformation Fingerprints™, which can be applied through the artificial intelligence tools used by digital platforms to identify all the content on their platforms that require correction or other mitigation. The Misinformation Fingerprints™ product is also used by cybersecurity firms and disinformation researchers.
The approach NewsGuard has taken since its founding in 2018 is based on adherence to full disclosure of criteria, applying the criteria equally to all in an apolitical manner, and always contacting publishers for comment before failing them on any criteria to explain the issue and providing an opportunity for the publishers to respond and/or amend their practices. Put simply, when NewsGuard rates news and information websites, it applies nine fully disclosed criteria, applies them equally and alerts publishers of any apparent failure on any of the criteria. “Platforms that already provide NewsGuard’s ratings and labels, such as Microsoft’s mobile Edge app and the Edge browser extension, already comply with proposed criteria such as those in the Department of Justice proposal. The other digital platforms can also provide NewsGuard ratings and labels to their users,” said Mr. Brill. “These platforms can also use NewsGuard’s Misinformation Fingerprints™, which catalogs all the top hoaxes and misinformation, enabling the platforms to mitigate the harm of hoaxes displayed to their users. These fingerprints are determined using a fully transparent approach.”
Currently, the platforms use undisclosed algorithms to remove or suppress certain content and promote other content. Publishers have complained that they often are not aware when platforms suppress their content and when they become aware cannot determine the reason for the actions by the platforms. Publishers are given no opportunity to have their responses published. This lack of transparency has reduced trust in the platforms.
“NewsGuard is the opposite of a secret algorithm. Our criteria are disclosed, our labels are fully transparent, we always contact publishers before identifying failures to comply with our disclosed criteria, and these publishers can always have their responses published as part of our assessment,” said Mr. Crovitz. “We’re delighted when publishers ‘game our system’ in order to improve their scores. More than 800 news and information websites have improved their ratings by making improvements to their practices in one or more of our nine criteria after engaging with NewsGuard analysts.”
NewsGuard’s ratings and labels have already been licensed by technology companies such as Microsoft, internet providers such as BT (British Telecom) and education companies such as Turnitin for their customers. Its HealthGuard product, which rates websites that report on COVID-19, vaccines and other healthcare topics, is used by the World Health Organization and is licensed by hospital systems such as Mt. Sinai. These ratings, labels and the Misinformation Fingerprints catalog of all the top hoaxes and misinformation are available to be licensed by the digital platforms.
Launched in March 2018 by media entrepreneur and award-winning journalist Steven Brill and former Wall Street Journal publisher Gordon Crovitz, NewsGuard provides credibility ratings and detailed “Nutrition Labels” for thousands of news and information websites. NewsGuard rates all the news and information websites that account for 95% of online engagement across the U.S., U.K., Germany, France, and Italy. NewsGuard products include NewsGuard, HealthGuard, and BrandGuard, which helps marketers concerned about their brand safety, and the Misinformation Fingerprints catalog of top hoaxes.
NewsGuard rates each site based on nine apolitical criteria of journalistic practice, including whether a site repeatedly publishes false content, whether it regularly corrects or clarifies errors, and whether it avoids deceptive headlines. It awards weighted points for each criterion and sums them up; a score of less than 60 earns a “Red” rating, while 60 and above earns a “Green” rating, which indicates it is generally reliable.
NewsGuard’s ratings and Nutrition Labels can be licensed by internet service providers, browsers, news aggregators, education companies, and social media and search platforms in order to make NewsGuard’s information about news websites available to their users. Consumers can access these ratings by purchasing a subscription to NewsGuard, which costs $2.95/month and includes access to NewsGuard’s browser extension for Chrome, Safari, and Firefox and its mobile app for iOS and Android. The extension is available for free on Microsoft’s Edge browser through a license agreement with Microsoft, and NewsGuard’s ratings can also be accessed free through the Edge mobile browser. Hundreds of public libraries globally receive free access to use NewsGuard’s browser extension on their public-access computers to give their patrons more context for the news they encounter online. For more information, including to download the browser extension and review the ratings process, visit newsguardtech.com.
- Steven Brill, Co-CEO, firstname.lastname@example.org, +1 212-332-6301
- Gordon Crovitz, Co-CEO, email@example.com, +1 212-332-6407