Government Questions Liability Shield Offered by Section 230

The U.S. House of Representatives is signaling intent to proceed with legislation to scale back the Section 230 liability shield for Big Tech. The move follows a frontal assault on Australia’s version of the law by the Parliament and global saber-rattling against protections that prevent social platforms being held legally accountable for user-posted content that harms others. At a Wednesday hearing on various Section 230 bills, House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Frank Pallone (D-New Jersey) said that while the protections were vital to Internet growth, they have resulted in anti-social behavior.

“Some of the changes under consideration would allow people seriously hurt by social-media algorithms — including some teenage girls who suffer body image issues — to recover damages in court. For years now, these platforms have acted above the law and outside the reach of regulators and the public,” Pallone said in The Wall Street Journal, concluding, “The time to act is now.”

Characterizing legislative battle ahead as “a showdown between Washington and Silicon Valley,” WSJ cited Big Tech trade association counsel Chris Marchese of NetChoice as saying, “Changing Section 230 is a bad solution to a problem social media sites are already working hard to fix.”

“Removing the legal shield, known as Section 230, would mean a sea change for the Internet, because it has long enabled the vast scale of social media websites,” reports The New York Times.

“The current immunity also could be lifted in cases of harassment and stalking, wrongful death and international human rights laws, among other circumstances,” WSJ notes.

Congress is also looking at changes that would expose tech platforms to liability for other content deemed to infringe on users’ civil rights. “Every day, big tech corporations increase the number of people in our country who believe racial and ethnic violence is a solution, not a problem, and every day, they increase the number of businesses in our country who practice discrimination and systematically exploit consumers,” Color of Change president Rashad Robinson said in WSJ.

Testifying again on Wednesday, Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen expressed support for changing Section 230 (part of the Communications Decency Act) so that it no longer covers what NYT called “algorithmic amplification.”

“There’s a growing realization that the algorithms are the problem,” Representative Tom Malinowski (D-New Jersey) told The Verge on Wednesday. “Through their recommendation algorithms, the social media companies have created a perfect machine for driving people to political extremes and even to violence.”

Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut) said his branch continues to proceed with similar legislation and that Wednesday’s House hearing evidenced Congressional momentum in addressing public concerns about Big Tech. But WSJ pointed out that while there is bipartisan support for reining-in social platforms, there is a party divide over how to do it, with Republicans claiming some changes would unfairly censor conservatives.

Congress Takes Aim at the Algorithms, Wired, 12/2/21

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