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Why repealing Section 230 is not enough

By Sridhar Ramaswamy on 10/26/2020

There has been a lot of talk about repealing Section 230. With some merit, Section 230(c)(1) has been called "the twenty-six words that created the Internet." (This law was passed in 1996; talk about prescience!) Simply put, it allowed for digital platforms to host user content without being responsible for what the content said. While there has been clarification and litigation, the essence has stood the test of time.

It is important to understand that this law came at a time when there was no Facebook, Twitter or YouTube. And there was real fear that a torrent of lawsuits would squelch the fledgling Internet.

Fast Forward to Now

There are a few platforms whose ability to shape conversation has become incredibly important: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and WhatsApp have become the public squares of today. And the software that controls them has enormous power over humanity.

At many levels, these platforms are struggling. They struggle to protect democracy and civil discourse. They can barely keep out what is outright illegal. And worse, they are getting more entrenched over time, not less. Free markets are failing us, platitudes about "competition being a click away" notwithstanding.

At one level, a company is a completely unsuitable construct to police the speech of the world. Given that we live in a world of supervoting shares, do we really want Mark Zuckerberg's grandchild to decide "truth" for us? (Thanks to his supervoting shares, this is more of a predictable outcome than you think. And no, to the best of my knowledge, he doesn't have a grandchild. That's my point.)

And if you are an executive at the company, it is not clear what you are expected to do. Back when I was running Google ads, I once asked Senator Ron Wyden--who had been the lead on Section 230-- what he wanted us to do about Russian interference in the elections. He waved a finger at me and said, "Stop all the bad actors."

Most politicians, citizens, and even tech workers would agree with the sentiment. The problem of course is in how you do that.

While most people are aware that Section 230 protects online platforms from being sued about content that they host, it also has a "good samaritan" provision that allows these platforms to screen or remove content that they think is "offensive".

But do we really want a small, isolated team making decisions in secret about issues that might literally change the world?

"Repeal 230" is a popular thing to say these days. What happens after that? A spate of lawsuits against social media companies about content that they are hosting? Does this also not mean that no new startup will come up in user-generated content for fear of lawsuits?

Better Questions Lead to Better Answers

We need to understand the nuance of the underlying problem, and move towards some standards and shared definitions. Here are some concepts that are difficult for standalone tech companies to decide and rule on:

  • Should content from influential people (with a lot of followers, let's say) be treated differently than content from people with very few followers?
  • Is there a commonly accepted definition for hate speech or falsehood or misinformation?
  • How much exposure should recommendation algorithms (which are under the control of the platforms) generate for problematic content before it is subject to more review?

Now that we've laid out some topics that require more thought, what are good first steps that we should be taking to drive change?

  • We need common definitions. These definitions need to be arrived at by a group of people who are clearly not controlled by any individual company.
  • We need the tech companies to fund the creation of a shared system that can be used by all companies to generate labels for these definitions. Such a system should be available at a low cost for startups.
  • This shared system will make it easier for new companies to create innovative products and compete with the giants.
  • Whether a site allows porn or hate speech is up to them. They should clearly show what they do so that people can make choices about what product they want to use and what content they want to see.
  • The degree of liability that a company incurs should then be dependent on the kinds of policies that a company adopts: If a site thinks that it is OK to run unsubstantiated conspiracy theories, perhaps they should be subject to lawsuits about those posts.

We need the tech giants to create a system that can be used by all of them: Individual companies can decide what they want to allow and what labels to put on content, but it is critical that we think of this as a system that should be subsidized by the big tech companies while being accessible to everybody (startups, for example) for a low cost.

Stopping the spread of misinformation and preventing too much decision-making power from concentrating in the hands of a few companies are incredibly complex problems that can literally shape electoral as well as life and death outcomes. For us to find better answers to these problems, we need to start asking better questions. While it is clear that the blanket protections of Section 230 don't make sense for today, as with another topic, "repeal" is easy and tempting. What we need to do is work on the "replace" part now!

What is the future of search?

By Sridhar Ramaswamy on 07/07/2020

We were overwhelmed and humbled by the response to the announcement of Neeva. Tens of thousands of users signed up to join our waitlist and wrote in so many reasons why they were excited to use Neeva. Thank you all for the feedback!

One of the important questions that people asked us over email and social media was around the interplay between privacy and a personal search engine. At Neeva, we passionately believe that these two concepts are not in conflict. That means showing you weather for the locations you care about, news about the sports teams that you like and stocks that you own and want to see updates about. All while having these preferences seamlessly work on every device you own that you connect to Neeva. Bringing together personal and private creates a strong product that drives immense value for people!

This is no different than getting personalized movie recommendations to watch or playlists to listen to. A search engine that knows nothing about you never gets better for you!

We firmly believe that a search engine that knows you can deliver a great experience while protecting your privacy. Not only do we promise that you will never be shown ads on Neeva, we guarantee that your data will never be sold in any form whatsoever (aggregated or not) to anybody. You are firmly in charge: we delete your search history by default after 90 days. The 90 day retention period is the de-facto behavior of Neeva: based on your feedback, we have made it explicitly part of our privacy policy. We have also added more details to our privacy policy about how we handle your data, and we plan to make further improvements in clarity and readability over the coming weeks.

In addition to a short data retention policy, we understand that you may have searches that you want to be completely private with nothing stored. We offer an incognito mode for these cases. We want to give our users options for how they search the internet for content that matters to them.

While we currently use data from other providers in addition to our own results (like using Xignite to show you stock prices or weather.com for weather), we hold ourselves accountable for the quality of the product. We are passionate product people and will build whatever we need to create a great search experience for you. We respect your privacy regardless of the source of your search results. We take an extraordinary amount of care to ensure that we do not pass on personally identifiable information such as your IP address or precise location to external providers. We are responsible for the quality of the results we show you, and we will do whatever it takes to provide an amazing product for you while respecting your online privacy.

Lastly, we have heard questions about what to expect in terms of a price point for a Neeva subscription. I talked about this a bit with Kara Swisher in her recent episode of Recode Decode. Neeva serves only one constituent - the user. This is made possible with a subscription business model. We will start at a reasonable price, say the cost of two black coffees a month. We hope that over time we will be able to reduce the price as we become more efficient. Everything that we take for granted (our computers and phones, even ice cream) started out at a higher price point before scale and innovation made them available to everyone. We hope Neeva follows a similar trajectory.

We are well aware of the responsibility we have in protecting your data, which is why we plan to publish a white paper on our security and data handling practices in the next few weeks. If you have any questions or thoughts, please send us feedback!

A new way to search that works just for you

By Sridhar Ramaswamy on 06/22/2020

Finding information that is important to us—weather, jobs, sports, that strange headache symptom—is a basic and deeply personal human need. In less than twenty years, we’ve gone from looking up information in encyclopedias to being able to find almost anything with a tap on our phone!

I was fortunate to be part of the early engineering team that built Google Search, which democratized access to knowledge for millions of people around the world. It was, and remains, a vitally important service, made free for everyone through online advertising.

As the leader of Google’s advertising products until 2018, I truly believed in the benefits of an ad-supported search experience. And indeed, there are aspects of online advertising that I still very much believe can bring benefits to users and advertisers alike. However, I have come to believe that ads detract from a good search experience and have also had many unintended side-effects that have large social consequences.

First, the very existence of an online ad right on top of the search results pushes down and deprioritizes the information we are searching for. After all, when most of us are searching about flu symptoms, we want to know the symptoms—not see an ad for cough syrup, and certainly not an ad for cough syrup that will then follow us across the Internet for the coming weeks.

Second, ad-supported search engines face the daily pressure of returning value to their shareholders by prioritizing advertisers and ads revenue. This has several unintended consequences, including ever-increasing ad-load, ads driven misinformation and harmful content, and practices that value profit over user privacy.

These problems are further exacerbated by the fact that there tends to be only one or two viable search engines in most countries. A lack of competition in the search space is bad for innovation and bad for users. We need more search engines, offering different kinds of experiences and preferences, to fit people’s individual needs.

Enter Neeva, our vision for a private and ads-free search engine that truly puts you first. Whether you’re looking for general information, or something deeply personal—like an important email, a calendar invite, or a copy of your passport—you can be certain that your information is your own, and not sold on to advertisers as a means of targeting you with their ads.

Neeva isn’t just about privacy, it’s also about simplicity. Most of us are overwhelmed by the vast amounts of information competing for our attention 24/7. Neeva lets you easily find just what you want, either on the public web or in personal accounts you choose to connect.

As an example of how you can use Neeva, if you’re upgrading your study (since we’re all spending a lot of time at home these days), we can help you find the best standing desk and home monitor. Neeva prioritizes quality review sites and brands you trust instead of flooding your screen with paid results. We can also help you save and organize your research so you can come back to it easily.

Search Re-Imagined

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Neeva’s web search for “best standing desk” and saved research on topics of interest

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Neeva’s Home page and search results from personal services

Join Us

Search is the gateway to the world’s information, and with Neeva, we want to help you experience the Internet in a new way—free of distractions, prying eyes and frustration. Moreover, we strongly believe that you, the customer, have inalienable rights online: we published our manifesto in a consumer Digital Bill of Rights.

We are currently in limited beta testing. Please sign up here to get early access. We’re still in the early stages of building our company and our product, and we’re excited to build it with you.