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With Google and Facebook Under Fire, Section 230 is at a Tipping Point as More Push for Changes

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WASHINGTON, June 12, 2019 – New critics of Section 230 of the Telecommunications Act seem to emerge every day on both the political right and the left.

The law states that “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.”

These 26 words are widely credited with creating the free-wheeling internet of today. It did this by shielding internet social media “publishers” – otherwise known as internet “platforms” – from liability for the content created by their users.

On Tuesday, conservative firebrand Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., became the latest on the right to fire at Section 230. At a hearing on Google and Facebook’s impact on journalism, Gaetz floated the possibility of removing or altering the Section 230 protections upon which the technology industry has come to rely.

He also imputed a kind of “fairness” or neutrality standard to which internet platforms must purportedly subscribe if they wish to retain the benefits from liability provided by Section 230.

From the left, Reed Hundt criticizes Section 230 protections as ‘naïve’

But it isn’t just conservatives gunning for Section 230: So are progressives, including Reed Hundt, the author of a recent book critical of what he calls Barack Obama’s “neoliberal” handling of the great recession.

Speaking about his book “A Crisis Wasted: Barack Obama’s Defining Decisions” at a Friday forum hosted by The Capitol Forum, Hundt concurred with some – on the left and on the right – who want to break up Facebook.

Hundt, the first chairman of the Federal Communications Commission under President Bill Clinton, said that he was “wrong” not to oppose Section 230 when it was introduced as part of the Communications Decency Act that passed in 1996.

Hundt contrasted the libel standard that governs traditional publishers like The New York Times. The landmark 1964 Supreme Court decision New York Times Co. v. Sullivan held that newspapers needed to have made a false statement with knowledge or reckless disregard of the truth to be guilty of libel.

It is that standard to which The New York Times is held when it decides to publish “user-generated content” like a letter to the editor. By contrast, Facebook takes much less care in its treatment of content posted by users on its site.

As a result, Facebook and other social media networks permit far more violence and hatred on their web sites than a traditional publisher like The Times would ever countenance on its web site.

Hundt said that the laissez-faire approach of the 1990s, including Section 230, was built around the presumption that “people are good.” Of the time, he now says, “we were very naïve.”

Section 230 took an alternative approach to incentivize online decency

Section 230 was drafted as part of the Communications Decency Act included in the Telecommunications Act of 1996. CDA barred “indecent” material online. It was struck down as unconstitutional in 1997 by the Supreme Court in Reno v. ACLU.

But Section 230 has remained the law of the land. And courts have read its provision to be quite broad in exempting technology companies from liability.

The provisions of Section 230 had originally been proposed as an alternative remedy to an outright ban of indecent content. Indeed, it gave an “interactive computer service(s)” protection for “any action voluntarily taken in good faith to restrict access to or availability of material that the provider or user considers to be obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable, whether or not such material is constitutionally protected.”

Today, with greater scrutiny on the market power and elements of toxic speech emanating from social media, Section 230 is under much greater fire from political and social leaders. And yet courts keep making it difficult to limit its scope and reach.

Courts can’t help themselves in broadly viewing Section 230, so prosecutors want legislative changes

On Friday, for example, the D.C. Court of Appeals cited Section 230 in holding that Google, Microsoft and Yahoo aren’t liable for hosting content posted by known scammers. A group of locksmiths had sued the platforms, claiming that the platforms were effectively engaging in a racket to incentivize legitimate locksmiths to buy ads in order to drive scammers lower on search results.

And that’s probably why state attorneys general are also not letting up in their criticism of Section 230. Last month, 47 of 50 attorneys general joined a letter of the National Association of Attorneys General supporting legislative changes to the law. They say (PDF) that Section 230 precludes state and local authorities from enforcing laws against “sex trafficking and crimes against children.”

The attorneys general continue:

  • “We sadly note that the abuse on these platforms does not stop at sex trafficking. Stories of online black market opioid sales, ID theft, deep fakes, election meddling, and foreign intrusion are now ubiquitous, and these growing phenomena will undoubtedly serve as the subjects of hearings throughout the 116th Congress. Current precedent interpreting the CDA, however, continues to preclude states and territories from enforcing their criminal laws against companies that, while not actually performing these unlawful activities, provide platforms that make these activities possible. Worse, the extensive safe harbor conferred to these platforms by courts promotes an online environment where these pursuits remain attractive and profitable to all involved, including the platforms that facilitate them.”

The attorneys general also urged Congress to amend Section 230 in 2013 and 2017. Congress took them up on their request, for the first time, when it made a change in 2018 with the passage of the “Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act” and “Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act” (known as FOSTA-SESTA). Passed last year, the measure provides that Section 230 immunity does not apply against enforcement of federal or state sex trafficking laws.

Will changes to Section 230 help big social media companies at the expense of competition?

Some populist Republicans are treating Section 230 as if it were an all-purpose punching bag to go after technology companies and internet platforms.

At a May policy forum flaying Facebook, Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Missouri, said that Section 230 is “predicated on [platforms] providing open, fair and free platforms. If they are not going to do that, but insert their own political biases, then they start to look a lot more like a newspaper, or TV station, but don’t qualify for Section 230.”

At the same time, Hawley took a nuanced view about the possible effects that changes to Section 230 might have on startup companies attempting to compete against giants like Facebook and Google. “We need to make sure that [changes to Section 230 are] not a benefit to incumbency.”

Dan Huff, counsel to former House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., said at the event that Congress should be more bold in exercising power. The House should use the threat of revising Section 230 as a weapon. This could force Google and Facebook to let the public know how their algorithms highlight particular search results or promote certain items within a user’s social news feed.

Congress should say to these companies: “Unless your make public the grounds on which you keep content off your platform,” we are going to eliminate or drastically scale back Section 230 protections, said Huff.

(Photo of former FCC Chairman Reed Hundt, speaking at The Capitol Forum on Friday, by Drew Clark.)

Breakfast Media LLC CEO Drew Clark is a nationally respected U.S. telecommunications attorney. An early advocate of better broadband, better lives, he founded the Broadband Census crowdsourcing campaign for better broadband data in 2008. That effort became the Broadband Breakfast media community. As Editor and Publisher, Clark presides over news coverage focused on digital infrastructure investment, broadband’s impact, and Big Tech. Under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, Clark served as head of the Partnership for a Connected Illinois, a state broadband initiative. Now, in light of the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, attorney Clark helps fiber-based and wireless clients secure funding, identify markets, broker infrastructure and operate in the public right of way. He also helps fixed wireless providers obtain spectrum licenses from the Federal Communications Commission. The articles and posts on Broadband Breakfast and affiliated social media, including the BroadbandCensus Twitter feed, are not legal advice or legal services, do not constitute the creation of an attorney-client privilege, and represent the views of their respective authors.

Senate

National 6G Strategy Bill Passes Senate Commerce Committee

The Next Generation Telecommunications Act received bipartisan support.

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Photo of Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto by Senate Democrats, via Wikimedia

WASHINGTON, March 22, 2022 – Legislation that would create a council to advise Congress on 6G and other wireless technologies and how they may power smart cities on Tuesday passed the Senate’s Commerce, Science and Transportation committee with bipartisan support.

In addition to advising Congress on the state of technology in the telecommunications industry, the council would also develop a comprehensive, national telecom strategy, which will address topics related to technology, workforce demands and security.

The bill, Next Generation Telecommunications Act, S.3014,was introduced by Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., who said in a press release that the legislation is a key part of her state’s goal of being “on the cutting edge of new technologies.

“We’ve got to promote American competitiveness in these kind of cutting-edge technologies that we’re building in Nevada,” Cortze Masto said in a statement on the bill. “That means improving access to quality broadband, ensuring we have the necessary workforce, and putting in safeguards to make sure we protect emerging technologies.”

The council would be comprised of 15 members including the deputy secretary of Commerce, the assistant secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information, the undersecretary of the National Institute of Standards, the chairperson of the Federal Communications Commission, and the director of the National Science Foundation.

The council would also feature three members appointed by the majority leader of the Senate, two members appointed by the minority leader of the Senate, three members appointed by the Speaker of the House, and two members appointed by the minority leader of the House.

The bill has received notable bipartisan support: it is co-sponsored by two Republicans and two additional Democrats, including Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Sen. Ben Luján, D-N.M.

“As China and other countries seek to exploit communications networks for surveillance and intellectual property theft, the U.S. needs a cohesive strategy for the safe deployment of next-generation wireless technologies,” said Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss.

South Dakota senator and Senate Republican minority whip John Thune also came out in support of the bill. “This bill would allow the United States to continue competing on the global stage, and it would help prepare the United States to lead the way in deploying next-generation technology, including 6G. I’ll continue to work on bipartisan solutions that will increase innovation and bolster the private sector’s ability to compete in this emerging space.”

The bill must now get through a general vote in the Senate, at which point it will need to also pass the House.

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Senate

Gigi Sohn Nomination for FCC Advances Out of Commerce Committee on Party Lines

Nomination of Alvaro Bedoya to the FTC can also advance to the floor following a party-line vote.

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Sens. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.

WASHINGTON, March 4, 2022 –  President Joe Biden’s nominee to the Federal Communications Commission Gigi Sohn saw her nomination advance out of the Senate Commerce Committee Thursday following a vote split along party lines.

Sohn, as well as Biden’s nominee to the Federal Trade Commission Alvaro Bedoya, did not receive the vote of a single Republican on the committee while receiving the support of all Democrats including more moderate senators such as Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., allowing for their nominations to advance to a full vote on the Senate floor.

Republican ranking member of the committee Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi stated that on the FCC Sohn would have the appearance of conflicts of interest related to her involvement in past legal battles and cited her past recusals on retransmission consent as problematic.

The controversy is related to Sohn’s involvement with nonprofit streaming service Locast which attempted to make local broadcast network content available to the public for free, sparking copyright lawsuits.

Wicker stated that Bedoya was too divisive and not unifying enough to serve on the FTC, a trend of partisanship that he says is new to the agency.

Strong Democratic support for both nominees makes their confirmations in the Senate seem quite plausible. Should all Republicans vote against the nominations, the approval of all Democratic senators will be required in the deadlocked Senate so that the vice president may break vote ties in the nominees’ favors.

Both the FCC and FTC remain split along party lines, and the confirmations of Sohn and Bedoya would give Democrats the upper hand at the agencies.

The nominations’ advancements out of committee earned praise from telecom industry groups such as think tank New America, the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors, and intellectual property nonprofit Public Knowledge – the organization Sohn formerly headed.

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Broadband's Impact

Year In Review: Key Developments for Broadband’s Impact in the U.S.

This year saw a growing telehealth trend, federal digital inclusion efforts and greater attention to spectrum sharing.

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Photo of FCC Chairman Jessica Rosenworcel (left) in February 2020 from the Prince George's County Library used with permission

WASHINGTON, December 29, 2021–High-speed internet access has never seemed more essential than in the days of another year of the COVID-19 pandemic.

And that’s why, for the third in a three-part review of 2021, Broadband Breakfast focuses on broadband’s impact in enabling benefits through expanded internet access.

Telehealth takes center stage

Because the pandemic is continually forcing closures and stay-at-home orders, the expansion of telehealth services has become a critical, normalized service this year as remote health care is a safer, more efficient way to deliver high-quality care.

Broadband service is now important to maintaining overall health––experts have defined broadband services as a social determinant of health. Expanding telemedicine across rural and Tribal communities remain barriers to better health outcomes for vulnerable populations.

The pandemic prompted Congress to extend waivers that allowed patients to take advantage of telehealth services. Experts say the waivers encouraged the growth of telehealth systems, and that investment in telehealth is necessary to improving them.

Broadband access and affordability often restrict vulnerable communities’ ability to take advantage of telehealth services. This year saw massive investments focused on funding telehealth subsidies for patients in need.

In December alone, the Federal Communications Commission announced more than $42.7 million in COVID-19 Telehealth Program awards for health care providers spending on telecommunications information services and devices. The awards also reimburse health care organizations for innovative ideas that connect patients to quality care with broadband.

For example, the Westchester County Health Care Corporation in Valhalla, New York, was awarded $1 million for the purchase of remote monitoring software and video equipment, which will allow for the creation of a “tele-ICU” for the provision of remote care for hospitalized patients.

In October, a Senate subcommittee heard testimony that permanent regulatory flexibility allowing free or subsidized telemedicine services for patients would have  a positive impact on patient care. It may have a cost benefit too: FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr estimated that  widespread telehealth availability could save the health care system $305 billion a year.

The FCC’s new Affordable Connectivity Fund

The Federal Communications Commission served as an accelerator to better connect communities during the pandemic through its Affordable Connectivity Program. As families and students struggled to stay connected to work and school during the pandemic, the FCC has taken historic steps to assist families can’t afford to pay for internet service and devices.

Originally established as the Emergency Broadband Benefit, the Affordable Connectivity Program is the nation’s largest broadband subsidy program to ever be enacted. The Emergency Broadband Benefit was replaced by the Affordable Connectivity Program after the passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act in November.

The Affordable Connectivity Program transformed the Emergency Broadband Benefit into a long-term program that provides discounts for families to purchase internet service and devices. Households can also receive discounts to purchase a laptop, desktop computer, or tablet for their home.

The Affordable Connectivity Program enrollment period opens on December 31, 2021, allowing families to start the new year with the opportunity to receive new devices for the home. However, a long-standing challenge has been informing the community about these benefits. Policy experts agree that these benefit programs are not reaching the intended audience.

A November report showed that areas with low broadband adoption are less likely to enroll in the program. “If leaders want to connect the unconnected, in addition to low income groups, other programs will be needed. EBB isn’t targeting these low-adoption communities,” said Will Rinehart, senior fellow at the Center for Growth an Opportunity.

FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel agreed on the need for emphasizing outreach. “There was no funding to help a lot of these non-profit and local organizations around the country get the word out [about the program],” Rosenworcel said during a September event hosted by the Internet Innovation Alliance about the broadband affordability divide. “And I know that it would get the word out faster if we had that opportunity.”

Digital equity and inclusion

The past year was significant for its focus on digital equity and inclusion. The closing of many public institutions because of the pandemic has forced lower-income communities into isolation without sufficient devices or technology to stay connected, digital inclusion experts say.

Organizations such as the National Digital Inclusion Association have decried a type of discrimination known as “digital redlining” in which internet service providers discriminate in broadband deployment, maintenance, upgrade, or delivery of service in lower-income neighborhoods. Because communities of color are more likely to have slower and less reliable internet service, policy leaders have been active in finding solutions.

To combat this alleged practice, Rep. Yvette Clark introduced the Anti-Digital Redlining Act on July 30.  The bill finds that lower-income residents pay the same for DSL internet as fiber customers, while wealthier residents receive much better internet service. The text of the bill also acknowledges that disparities in internet access “impose significant costs” on the government to choose between “either offering non-digital means of interaction or excluding residents without access to high speed, reliable broadband access.”

If passed as federal law, the measure would require the FCC to ban digital redlining.

This year also saw the passage of digital inclusion-focused legislation as part of the recently-passed Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. The law allocated $2.75 billion to the Digital Equity Act, which establishes the federal definitions of digital inclusion and digital equity.

The Digital Equity Act’s two programs and three grant funds will supply money to the states in order to do digital equity work. For example, the Broadband Equity Access and Deployment program gives block grants to states for broadband infrastructure deployment and other digital inclusion activities.

Amy Huffman, policy director at the National Digital Inclusion Association, said that states are best prepared to promote digital equity for their residents. “The states are already in charge of so economic development workforce development health outcomes, etc. so they want the state to think holistically, about how they’re doing around digital equity will help them achieve their other goals.” By connecting all residents to quality devices and internet-enabled services, residents are better equipped to fully engage with the community and improve their quality of life.

Satellite broadband takes flight

Apart from the high-profile space launches this year, the broadband industry is both excited and skeptical about satellites playing a greater role.

In late 2020, the FCC voted to adopt rules making it easier for satellite providers to obtain licensing to deploy satellites faster. In February, Elon Musk’s SpaceX launched 120 Starlink broadband satellites on two February missions, bringing the total number of satellites to over 1,700.

Low Earth Orbit satellites, which can bring broadband to rural communities, could connect harder-to-reach communities faster than laying fiber. By May 2021, SpaceX announced it had over 500,000 orders for the Starlink service.

Other companies are also jumping into the satellite business: the FCC approved Boeing’s  request to launch 132 satellites for its broadband internet network, and Amazon’s satellite imitative Project Kuiper partnered with Verizon in October to launch an internet service for underserved and unserved communities.

However, these massive investments didn’t come without controversy. Apart from concerns about Starlink’s capacity to deliver long-term, high quality service that complies with IIJA, public telecommunications policy leaders say the 12 GigaHertz (GHz) band, the portion of spectrum that Starlink uses for its services,  should be shared with 5G operators to deliver internet to lower-income communities.

Research commissioned by RS Access in August concluded that the mid-band spectrum can be shared between 5G and satellite broadband operators and finding that the 12 GHz spectrum is “highly favorable for 5G,” and “can rapidly accelerate 5G deployment nationwide.”

Next year regulators and policymakers will continue the battle to determine who, if anyone, will have greater control over the 12 GHz band.

Will the ‘homework gap’ persist in a world of online education?

Last year’s initial COVID lockdown left many families unprepared and unconnected to devices or internet access and the “homework gap” persisted.

In fall 2021, many schools embraced a “hybrid” in-person, virtual schooling model. Around this time, Pew research found that lower-income parents were more likely to say their children did homework on a cellphone and could not complete homework because they did not have computer access at home.

Some students have been using public Wi-Fi because they could not connect reliably at home. The FCC’s Emergency Connectivity Fund was authorized to help close bring devices to students who lack them.

Originally launching in June as part of March’s American Rescue Plan Act, the FCC has committed $3.8 billion of the $7.17 billion program to provide funding for schools and libraries to buy equipment students to learn remotely.

The total amount committed to go to support 9,000 schools, 760 libraries, and 100 consortia for nearly 8.3 million connected devices and over 4.4 million broadband connections, the agency said last week in a press release. (See also Year in Review: Key Developments in Digital Infrastructure with Ramifications for Next Year.)

Last week, the FCC committed another $603 million in Emergency Connectivity funds to connect more than 1.4 million students across all 50 states.

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