Forum Recap

Summer eCommerce Digital Forum Recap: Free Speech, Fintech, and…Furries?

It’s no secret we saw a massive rise in online transactions throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, forcing a spike in the need for eCommerce solutions – and fast. In response, we convened some of today’s leading minds in identity and eCommerce to explore the role it plays moving into the future. But in a space so dynamic and expansive, there’s more to be unpacked even after the virtual stage closes.

We chatted with a few of our speakers after their sessions, to get their thoughts on the discussions at hand, and followed up on some of the most pressing Q&A our audience brought to the table. Following From Posts to Purchases: User-Generated Content Lessons Learned, we tapped Brian Lynch, Moderator of Reddit’s IAMA Forum, and IP Attorney at Lynch LLP, to gain more of his expert insights. 

One World Identity (OWI): With the new challenge to section 230, how are Twitter and Reddit going to balance user content moderation and company fact-checking?

Brian Lynch (BL): It won’t. Here’s my thoughts on the Executive Order the question is referencing. The short answer is that the new Executive Order means nothing to me as a Reddit moderator. There’s no right to amplification on any one social media platform, and the Executive Order doesn’t change CDA 230 or any of the case law that currently exists. 

As a starting point for discussion, it’s important to understand what CDA 230 does. The statute itself provides, “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.” 47 USC. § 230 (c)(2). An “information content provider” is defined as “any person or entity responsible, in whole or in part, for the creation or development of information provided through the Internet or any other interactive computer service.” 47 USC. § 230 (f)(2). 

So, CDA 230 provides a liability shield for platforms that host user-generated content. When a platform publishes its statements, it would not have a liability shield through CDA 230 for that content. Thus, CDA 230 does not treat every entity as either a content provider or a service provider. 

The notion that once a platform publishes anything makes them forever a publisher is a fiction. To my knowledge, there’s no case law supporting such a proposition. On the whole, CDA 230 typically comes down in favor of the content host. It’s also somewhat telling that the administration used an Executive Order instead of an actual challenge in the courts. The Order doesn’t have the effect of a judicial decision on the statute, it doesn’t create law, and because its logic is so poor and its procedure so flawed, it’s unlikely to be followed by courts.

The Executive Order invites certain agencies to engage in rulemaking and clarification with respect to CDA 230. But these agencies lack rulemaking authority over CDA 230, and FTC Section 5 authority probably doesn’t extend to regulate speech in the absence of anti-competitive conduct. It also directs agencies to withhold federal advertising dollars from sites they deem restrict speech. Does it do anything of much significance, at least in the immediate future? Not that I can tell, but it’ll be important to watch what the FCC and FTC decide to do with the Executive Order.

OWI: Is there a take away from all this that’s useful? 

BL: I’m often reminded of this popular XKCD regarding free speech.

But it does seem that CDA 230’s days, in current form, might be numbered. Both parties in Congress have taken an interest in it lately and what it means for social media in the future. How that regulation might look is anyone’s guess. If CDA 230 were eliminated instantly, websites that permit users to upload content—Facebook, Twitter, Medium, Reddit, YouTube, Instagram—would likely require much more substantial, top-down content moderation so that potentially tortious or illegal content does not expose the website to legal liability. 

OWI: How do you ensure that user moderators act in accordance with the foundational beliefs of your company?

BL: I don’t have to act in accordance with any foundational belief with Reddit because they don’t employ me. When I recruit moderators to help out, I tend to look for working professionals that can exercise good judgment. Reddit has some policies implemented to deal with moderators that disregard the foundational content rules—like removing specific communities from being able to reach the front page. This also tacks back to my response to the CDA 230 question: there’s no right to amplification on a private social media platform. 

I also believe it’s important for platforms to listen to users and moderators, and be flexible in their operations. The bedrock for some of the super platforms is built around getting millions of people to click or tap on things. It’s not like the founders had terribly elaborate visions when the engineering was first laid down. As user and moderator views on corporate operations and ethos change, it’s important to change with them and to help incentivize positive changes to platform culture. 

OWI: A lot of UGC platforms seem to struggle with criticisms of commercialization as they mature. How can platforms balance “authentic” UGC with brands that seek to leverage a platform’s popularity for publicity, marketing, etc.?

BL: The best you can do is explain the platform to these brands or personalities and try and get them to act like human beings. That task is easier said than done because many popular brands, in my experience, are slow to adapt to a new medium that would require time and money to master and integrate with their existing marketing apparatus. Shorter: they’re lazy by design. The people that manage these brands’ social media presence don’t want to read. They don’t want to participate. They want to punch in and punch out. 

There are powerful incentives for brands to get it right. Front paging Reddit will send thousands of people to look at your cool project. Even a small AMA, done well, will generate a bunch of discussions and build out a presence for a person for a brand. 

So I don’t think it’s necessarily a balancing act between commercialization and authenticity. I think it’s mostly about getting buy-in from the brand to accept that no one wants to interact with a sterile commercial and to interact like they’re a group of humans with something neat to show off. Of course, if everyone who works at your company is unhappy and hates working there, an AMA is harder to pull off successfully.

OWI: Are there clear lessons from Twitter or Reddit in recent years to correctly attribute credit to secondary users that benefit from “viral” trends but end up superseding the original posters who don’t end up benefiting? Examples are clear in eCommerce, such as with fanfic authors like Addison Cain or Zoey Ellis. They have lifted their books from user-run communities such as the Omegaverse, or in P2P instances, as with TikTok and the Renegade challenge.

BL: This is a tough question that doesn’t lend itself to a short answer. My answer involves furries, copyright law, and access to justice. 

Copyright law, on paper, provides some protection for the original poster of copyrightable expression. For the original poster to have actionable infringement, though, depends on whether the new, similar work is derivative or transformative—and that’s not an easy question. On top of that, online platforms have a strong incentive under the DMCA to essentially stay out of these copyright disputes. The more platforms get involved in the minutiae and depart from the DMCA’s notice and counter-notice system, the more they could expose themselves to liability. 

A friend of mine is a lawyer for the furry community. Furries are a community of people that dress as anthropomorphic animals and build identities around identifying as quasi-human animals. It’s probably the most niche law practice I’ve ever seen in my life, and his meteoric rise in that community was through Furry Twitter. The furries had an issue with Nazi furries attending one of their conventions, and they weren’t sure how to cope. This particular attorney took their issue seriously and pointed out how they could handle it even though the rest of the Internet seemed to take some mocking amusement in their predicament. Overnight I think he had several thousand new followers of his law practice’s Twitter account, and they were all furries. It was incredible to watch, and it wasn’t like he was aiming to be their champion. He saw an issue, and he wanted to help resolve it. But the furry community, in particular, similar to the fanfiction community, is plagued with copyright issues.

I think this question also tacks back to a serious problem in the US, which is access to justice. Many people don’t use contracts, a work made for hire agreement, or copyright notices or licensing on anything because they don’t know they’re even supposed to consider it. It might be helpful for platforms to bake some sort of copyright into their system for commoners to help prevent litigation while supporting healthy communities that like to create artwork together. 

OWI: Are user moderation policies such as shadow-banning uniquely successful for reddit’s users, or can they be transported with minimal adjustment to other platforms and retain similar efficacy?

BL: I don’t like shadow-banning as a tool for human beings. For bots or spam, it works OK. For people that aren’t trying to spam your platform, you should probably just temp ban or loud ban them, so they aren’t spinning their wheels posting and thinking they’re shouting into an empty void. The loud ban also helps draw lines for other users about what’s appropriate and what’s not. 

OWI: How do you handle moderator burnout?

BL: It’s crucial to automate as much as possible. I work with volunteer moderators, so I take what people are willing to give. It’s fun to build a hobby project. Taking a break is fine, and recruiting new mods is important so people can cycle in and out based on their time and life circumstances.

From there, we sat down with Erik Becker, SVP Corporate Development at Urjanet, who joined us on the panel, Innovative Applications for Alternative Data Across the Customer Lifecycle. This session took a deep dive into an exploration of KYC, identity, and address verification, as well as credit risk assessment across Fintech and eCommerce. With so much to cover in just 45 minutes, we needed more answers.

OWI: In some cases, there is still the need to query authoritative data sources as part of the onboarding process. Can you talk to a use case or two regarding how both authoritative and alternative data sources are used?

Erik Becker (EB): There are many examples of account onboarding processes where alternative data is very useful. For example, the address from a utility invoice is an excellent source for verifying an address or demonstrating proof of occupancy. We see this used for merchant onboarding, mortgage lending, and other e-commerce use cases where it’s essential to know the account holder’s address with certainty.

OWI: What is the value of utility data for small business loans? There is a perception in the marketplace that most small businesses will pay their utility bills regardless of their business’ health, which would limit the amount of value for this data. Can you point to any useful resources or documentation that would support the small business use case for utility data?

EB: Yes, utility data is very valuable for SMB loans. Payment history can be used to augment other data sources to make a credit decision. And many SMB lenders will choose to get ongoing utility payment history to monitor changes in credit status which might indicate loan performance problems if credit quality deteriorates, or the opportunity to extend more credit if credit quality improves. We are also working with innovative companies to use usage information from a utility bill to draw creditworthiness insights. For example, if a manufacturer uses less electricity than the same period the prior year, does this suggest their business is declining? If a restaurant is using more water, does it mean their volume of business growing? And finally, SMB lenders are using utility data to verify payments under the SBA PPP program.

OWI: Are there “preferred” alternative data sources, and if so, does this vary by demographics (like young people versus those with lower traditional credit-scored)?

EB: Yes, but this depends on the use case. If you want to understand cash flow, then bank data can be a great alternative data set. If you want to understand creditworthiness, then payment data received directly from the biller (e.g., utility bills) via a service like Urjanet is far more useful.

OWI: What data rights do consumers of your identity solutions have today? For example, is private social data-mined, or is public social data the only available alternative data to inform your identity models?

EB: Urjanet believes strongly in the privacy rights of consumers sharing user permissioned data. Our solution is consistent with all regulations in this area, including GDPR, CCPA, etc. 

While we could go on and on with our speakers, we’re already counting down the days until our Fall eCommerce Digital Forum takes place later this year, where we’ll continue to unpack similar topics and trends. If you’re late to the party, you can catch each full session on our site now.