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Without Section 230, Digital Platforms ‘Would Not Be Able to Exist,’ Panelists Said

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WASHINGTON, July 29, 2019 — Policy experts and tech executives emphatically defended the controversial Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act at an Internet Governance Forum conference on Thursday.

The statute, which has been the target of attacks from both sides of the aisle in recent weeks, paves the way for digital platforms to moderate content posted by users by giving them certain legal immunities.

“If we were held liable for everything that the users potentially posted…we fundamentally would not be able to exist,” said Jessica Ashooh, Reddit’s director of policy. “And that’s where this becomes a competitive issue, because at a time when we’re talking about antitrust investigations and we’re wondering if the biggest players are too big, the last thing we want to do is make a law that makes it harder for smaller companies to compete.”

The debate about content moderation is wrongfully cased in binary terms, Ashooh continued, explaining that there are many steps between leaving content up and taking it down. For example, Reddit uses a quarantine policy for material that doesn’t technically violate the content policy but could be reasonably called highly offensive or upsetting.

The policy also applies to certain content that is verifiably false, such as forums dedicated to Holocaust denial or anti-vaccination propaganda. Such content is hidden behind a warning screen and dropped out of user recommendations.

The First Amendment limits the government’s ability to counter the spread of disinformation, making it essential that Section 230 enables digital platforms to do so, said Emma Llansó, Director of the Free Expression Project at the Center for Democracy & Technology.

Without Section 230’s protection, content moderation would quickly become binary, Ashooh and Llansó warned.

The debate over content moderation is difficult because there is so much criticism in both directions, said Jeff Kosseff, professor of cybersecurity law at the U.S. Naval Academy.

Many argue that platforms are not doing enough moderation, a viewpoint that gained traction among Democrats when a doctored video of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi spread rapidly across the internet.

Others, including many Republicans, argue that platforms are using excessive content moderation to silence opposing political viewpoints, using the oft-repeated claim that Section 230 is premised on platforms having neutrality.

Section 230 is actually premised on not having neutrality, Kosseff said. Instead, it gives platforms the ability to implement and enforce their own content guidelines.

While some content is clearly criminal and should be taken down, there is plenty of content that falls into a gray area. The same words could potentially be viewed by some as valid political discourse and by others as violent hate speech.

Section 230 is important because it enables platforms to decide where to draw the line, Kosseff said. Although there’s no perfect way of making these difficult decisions, they are the responsibility of private companies, not the federal government.

We will “almost certainly” see changes to the statute in the near future—likely before the Senate passes privacy legislation, said IBM Technology Policy Executive Ryan Hagemann, saying that the question was not whether the law should be amended, but how it should be amended.

And Congress is starting to take note of the issue. Following a June proposal from Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., to repeal Section 230 for big tech giants, Rep. Ed Case, D-Hawaii, on Thursday formally requested the House Energy and Commerce Committee to launch a probe of the law.

“When the statute was passed in 1996, it had an important role to play in fostering the internet’s growth,” Day told the committee. “But today’s massive internet platforms that offer services cannot be allowed to knowingly facilitate law breaking in our states and localities by hiding behind CDA 230 immunity.”

(Photo of conference by Emily McPhie.)

Reporter Em McPhie studied communication design and writing at Washington University in St. Louis, where she was a managing editor for the student newspaper. In addition to agency and freelance marketing experience, she has reported extensively on Section 230, big tech, and rural broadband access. She is a founding board member of Code Open Sesame, an organization that teaches computer programming skills to underprivileged children.

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Congress

Sen. John Thune Launches Broadband Oversight Effort

Thune distributed a letter dated Tuesday seeking stakeholder input.

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Photo of Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., in February 2011 by Gage Skidmore used with permission

WASHINGTON, December 6, 2022 – Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., announced Tuesday that he will conduct a review of federal broadband programs, becoming the latest Republican lawmaker to pledge to turn up congressional scrutiny of telecommunications officials.

Thune distributed a letter dated Tuesday seeking stakeholder input on the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s stewardship of the $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment fund, policies related to the Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act, and several “general broadband issues.”

In the letter, Thune probed several traditional conservative policy points, questioning federal guidelines that allegedly run afoul of technological neutrality or favor municipal networks, union workers, or domestic manufacturers.

“In order to ensure rural communities have access to these services, it is critical for federal agencies to efficiently spend funds on the areas that need it the most,” Thune said in a statement. “Every federal dollar that has been spent should go toward the stated purpose of expanding connectivity to truly unserved areas.

“Congressional oversight has been noticeably absent in these areas, and there is serious concern that the federal government would repeat previous mistakes where agencies’ gross mismanagement of broadband funds fell on the backs of taxpayers across the country,” he added.

Thune cited a U.S. Government Accountability Office report from May 2022 that concluded, “The U.S. broadband efforts are not guided by a national strategy with clear roles, goals, objectives, and performance measures.” The report discovered more than 100 individual programs supervised by 15 agencies.

The report further found that many programs have overlapping purposes and many attempts to harmonize them are corralled by statute. Without congressional action, it said, federal efforts cannot be “fully coordinated.”

A more recent GAO report released publicly on Wednesday found the U.S. Department of Agriculture had not, “set specific goals for what it wants [ReConnect broadband program] to achieve or for how it will measure how well the program is working.” The report also urged the agency to strengthen its anti-fraud protocols.

Thune last week introduced the Rural Internet Improvement Act, which would streamline the Department of Agriculture’s broadband initiatives and limit the use of the USDA’s ReConnect funds to acutely unserved areas.

This fall, the GOP have made clear its intention to heighten scrutiny of broadband administrators. Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Penn., in September told Broadband Breakfast that he planned to subpoena the Federal Communications Commission and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to testify before the House Agriculture committee after the two agencies declined to appear at a hearing on the 2023 farm bill.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., that same month requested a list of all pending and expected FCC rulemakings, alleging a history of extra-statutory rulemakings. In November, McMorris Rodgers staffers re-emphasized the congresswoman’s commitment to oversight.

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Congress

Congress Working to Enact Permitting Reforms for Broadband

‘Red tape really does have the possibility to kill project,’ argued a House subcommittee chief counsel.

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Photo of Kate O'Connor from LinkedIn.

WASHINGTON, November 2, 2022 – Congress is advancing a series of proposals to reform broadband permitting, which include the elimination of unnecessary historical and environmental reviews and streamlining the process to deploy broadband on federal lands, staffers from the House Energy and Commerce Committee said on Wednesday.

Speaking at a Fiber Broadband Association web event, Evan Viau, a staff member for the Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, said the House is working to generally liberalize the permitting process for new deployments and upgrades to existing infrastructure as well.

“Red tape really does have the possibility to kill project,” argued Kate O’Connor, chief counsel for the Subcommittee on Communications and Technology.

“$42 billion (from the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program) seems like a lot of money…but if we don’t change all of the processes that allow that $42 billion to actually get spent to deploy this infrastructure, it could all be wasted,” she added.

O’Connor called for an “all-hands approach” to permitting reform, saying the federal government should encourage such reforms at the state and local levels, as well.

In 2021, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act allocated $65 billion to broadband funding – America’s largest investment in connectivity to date. The IIJA followed the American Rescue Plan Act, passed earlier that year, which also provided money for broadband to the states.

Republicans plan to oversee federal agencies

In addition to permitting reform, agency oversight is a top priority of Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R–Wash., ranking member of the Energy and Commerce Committee, O’Connor said. In September, McMorris Rodgers warned Federal Communications Commission Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel against acting beyond the statutory limits of the Commission’s authority.

And McMorris Rodgers isn’t the only high-ranking Republican with the oversight itch. In September, Rep. Glenn Thompson, R–Penn., ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee, told Broadband Breakfast he would likely issue subpoenas to the FCC and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration following the agencies’ refusal to testify at a hearing.  

Should the GOP retake the house in the November midterms, McMorris Rodgers, Thompson, and other Republicans will be better positioned to take action against President Joe Biden’s executive agencies.

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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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