In 2017, a twenty-year-old man was driving recklessly at speeds in excess of 120 miles per hour when he crashed his car, killing himself and his two teenage passengers. Two of the victim’s parents claimed Snapchat’s speed filter, which displays a speedometer overlaid on a video, encouraged this kind of behavior and the company should be held liable. The case was initially dismissed, saying essentially that the company can’t be held liable for user generated content, roughly in line with the kinds of protections social media companies have held under Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act.
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has now overruled that first decision, saying Section 230 doesn’t apply in this case because the flaw isn’t in the content that was uploaded to the social network but the design of the app itself. Adi Robertson, reporting for The Verge:
The parents claimed many teenagers believed — and that Snap knew they believed — they’d get a secret achievement for hitting speeds of 100 miles per hour. Snap countered that no such achievement existed and that it was just providing a tool for users to post their own content, an action mostly shielded under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.
The Ninth Circuit didn’t rule on whether Snap was liable. But it concluded that it wasn’t protected here by Section 230, which prevents sites and apps from being sued over what users post. Instead, it said the lawsuit “presents a clear example of a claim that simply does not rest on third-party content.” The company “indisputably designed” the reward system and speed filter, which allegedly created a defective product. “In short, Snap, Inc. was sued for the predictable consequences of designing Snapchat in such a way that it allegedly encouraged dangerous behavior.”
The distinction here is subtle but important and I think it’s a good sign that the government is finally starting to add some nuance and a more sophisticated understanding of how technology is actually used and shapes our everyday lives. This case in particular is a good distinction between the kind of protection Section 230 is meant to provide and the responsibility we should expect from tech companies. Snap’s absurd defense that it was providing a speedometer tool is laughable to anyone who considers how Snapchat is actually used.
Social media, as we broadly understand it, has been with us for a decade-and-a-half now and it’s clear we’re living with a tyranny of what Gianpiero Petriglieri calls the “unprepared overachiever”.
Unlike the insecure overachievers that corporations favor, unprepared overachievers have no patience to ponder the implications of their work. Whereas the former long for approval and try to be perfect, the latter favor data and do not hesitate to try things out. They move fast and break things, and if what they broke turns out to be of value, they apologize and pledge to do better next time. Failure, after all, is learning in disguise. Isn’t it?
These unprepared overachievers, which is really just another way of saying high-functioning sociopaths, include not just executives like Snap’s Evan Spiegel, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, or Twitter’s Jack Dorsey but VCs like Paul Graham, Marc Andreessen, and Peter Thiel, who fuel this limitless ambition, damning all consequences.
For years, preternaturally young tech moguls, brimming with an unchecked faith in their own naive view of the world, built unimaginable fortunes and seemingly unassailable influence with basically zero pushback from their peers, government, media, or users. That tide may finally be slowly turning.