Section 230 changes will be elusive despite pressure on tech CEOs

At hearing, Democrats rail against social media’s role in Jan. 6 riot; Republicans fault companies for suppressing conservative voices

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Posted March 25, 2021 at 4:09pm

Changes sought by both parties to a foundational law of the internet appeared elusive Thursday as Democrats and Republicans pilloried a trio of powerful social media executives with opposing grievances that remain a key obstacle to passing meaningful legislation.

At a joint subcommittee hearing of the House Energy and Commerce panel, Democrats stuck to the party line of criticizing the executives — Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Twitter’s Jack Dorsey, and Sundar Pichai, who leads Google’s parent company, Alphabet — for the perceived role their platforms played in the spread of political disinformation that led to the deadly insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6.

Of the three executives, only Dorsey agreed with Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Pa., that Twitter bore some responsibility for the riot by violent supporters of former President Donald Trump, who used his social media clout to egg on the mob. But Dorsey said Twitter was only one part of a broader online ecosystem that led to the Capitol attack. Pichai and Zuckerberg both dodged the question.

Democratic calls to alter the 1996 law, known as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, have grown in intensity since the January riot, as outraged lawmakers seek to punish the social media companies they deem partly liable. Section 230 protects online platforms from lawsuits related to third-party content on their sites.

Democrats say the companies use the law to shield themselves from responsibility for the spread of violent content, disinformation, hate speech and other objectionable content on their platforms. Indeed, at the hearing Thursday, they accused the companies of using algorithms to amplify such content.

“Our laws give these companies and their leaders a blank check to do nothing,” said House Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J. “Rather than limit the spread of disinformation, Facebook, Google and Twitter have created business models that exploit the human brain’s preference for divisive content to get Americans hooked on their platforms at the expense of the public interest.”

Republicans at the hearing expressed their own concerns about social media’s content moderation policies, including whether they harm underage users — a new line of questioning — and censor the spread of conservative viewpoints, a longtime grievance devoid of hard evidence.

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“I’m deeply concerned about the way you operate your companies in a vague and biased manner while using Section 230 as a shield for your actions and their real-world consequences,” said Rep. Bob Latta, R-Ohio.

With Democrats and Republicans starkly divided on exactly what problem they’d be trying to solve by overhauling Section 230, which still enjoys significant support on Capitol Hill, efforts to change the law — even bipartisan ones — are unlikely to pass anytime soon.

The leading bipartisan contender for Section 230 overhaul is legislation co-sponsored by Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, and Senate Minority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., that would require large online platforms to explain their content moderation policies and quickly remove illegal content. The bill would also give the Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission more leeway to file civil claims against the companies without having to worry about Section 230 exempting the companies from those claims.

Industry groups representing Silicon Valley say the legislation is a step in the right direction but have yet to give it a full-throated endorsement. Zuckerberg, the only executive of the three present Thursday to back changing Section 230, described policies similar to those in the Schatz-Thune proposal. Google and Twitter have urged lawmakers to leave the liability shield intact.

“The principles of Section 230 are as relevant today as they were in 1996, but the internet has changed dramatically,” Zuckerberg said in written testimony. “Section 230 would benefit from thoughtful changes to make it work better for people, but identifying a way forward is challenging given the chorus of people arguing —sometimes for contradictory reasons — that the law is doing more harm than good.”