WASHINGTON, August 1, 2019 — Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., took the stage at the National Conservative Student Conference on Wednesday to thunderous applause and dozens of phones held in the air to capture his entry on Snapchat and Instagram.
But Hawley, the youngest member of the Senate, is no friend to social media. On Tuesday, he introduced a bill targeting “addictive” engagement practices by social media platforms including YouTube’s autoplay, Snapchat’s streaks, and Twitter’s infinite scroll. The legislation would, by default, limit a user’s daily time on a platform to 30 minutes.
When asked by a student at Wednesday’s conference how preventing tech companies from innovating would solve any of the important issues around big tech, Hawley pounced on the word “innovation.”
“My biggest critique of big tech—besides the fact that they want to shut down our speech, and besides the fact that they’ve gotten rich on taxpayer dollars, and besides the fact that they’ve got great inside deals from government, … my biggest critique of big tech is, what innovation have they really given us?” Hawley asked.
“We just celebrated the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. Think about what the tech sector gave to America in the decade of the 1960s.”
“And what is it now that in the last 15 or 20 years the people who say they’re the brightest minds in the country have given this country? What are their great innovations? Autoplay? Snap streak? Ever additional refinements of a behavioral ad-based platform?”
Ironically, earlier in his speech, Hawley declared that “it’s time that we stood up to big government, to the people in government who think they know better.”
The Social Media Addiction Reduction Technology Act (PDF) introduced this week by Hawley includes language that “automatically limits the amount of time that a user may spend on those platforms across all devices to 30 minutes a day unless the user elects to adjust or remove the time limit and, if the user elects to increase or remove the time limit, resets the time limit to 30 minutes a day on the first day of every month.”
Issues of Section 230 limitations of liability
Hawley also repeated the claims made in his proposed legislation to remove Section 230 protections from big tech platforms.
“It is time that these big companies who have gotten insider deals with the government are actually held accountable,” he said.
“No one has gotten more of a sweetheart deal from the federal government than the big technology companies—Facebook, Google, Twitter. They’re treated differently than any other platforms or publishers in America, …and they’ve gotten rich and powerful and profitable because of it.”
“Now they’re saying that they should be able to decide whether or not conservatives get to speak on their platforms—what conservative speech is acceptable and what isn’t,” Hawley continued.
“They now want to censor and sit in judgement on our political speech…if they’re going to get these special deals from government, that shouldn’t happen.”
Hawley acknowledged that Facebook, Google, and Twitter have all appeared in front of Congress and testified under oath that they never censor content based on political viewpoint. But if this is really true, he said, the companies should open their books to an audit to prove it.
At those hearings, others introduced testimony, including a survey conducted by the Economist that found no evidence that Google biases results against conservatives, and a data analysis released by Twitter that found no statistically significant difference between the number of times Tweets were viewed that were sent by Democratic and Republican members of Congress.
Sen. Marsha Blackburn, chair of the Judiciary Committee’s Tech Task Force, also spoke about alleged social media bias. She proposed a more cautious solution of “a framework to guide these platforms without dictating every single business decision.”
But her overall message was still that “it is time for big tech to become accountable for what they have done to conservative voices on the internet and on these social media platforms.”
(Photo of Sen. Josh Hawley in May 2019 by Drew Clark.)
Repealing Section 230 Would be Harmful to the Internet As We Know It, Experts Agree
While some advocate for a tightening of language, other experts believe Section 230 should not be touched.
WASHINGTON, September 17, 2021—Republican representative from Colorado Ken Buck advocated for legislators to “tighten up” the language of Section 230 while preserving the “spirit of the internet” and enhancing competition.
There is common ground in supporting efforts to minimize speech advocating for imminent harm, said Buck, even though he noted that Republican and Democratic critics tend to approach the issue of changing Section 230 from vastly different directions
“Nobody wants a terrorist organization recruiting on the internet or an organization that is calling for violent actions to have access to Facebook,” Buck said. He followed up that statement, however, by stating that the most effective way to combat “bad speech is with good speech” and not by censoring “what one person considers bad speech.”
Antitrust not necessarily the best means to improve competition policy
For companies that are not technically in violation of antitrust policies, improving competition though other means would have to be the answer, said Buck. He pointed to Parler as a social media platform that is an appropriate alternative to Twitter.
Though some Twitter users did flock to Parler, particularly during and around the 2020 election, the newer social media company has a reputation for allowing objectionable content that would otherwise be unable to thrive on social media.
Buck also set himself apart from some of his fellow Republicans—including Donald Trump—by clarifying that he does not want to repeal Section 230.
“I think that repealing Section 230 is a mistake,” he said, “If you repeal section 230 there will be a slew of lawsuits.” Buck explained that without the protections afforded by Section 230, big companies will likely find a way to sufficiently address these lawsuits and the only entities that will be harmed will be the alternative platforms that were meant to serve as competition.
More content moderation needed
Daphne Keller of the Stanford Cyber Policy Center argued that it is in the best interest of social media platforms to enact various forms of content moderation, and address speech that may be legal but objectionable.
“If platforms just hosted everything that users wanted to say online, or even everything that’s legal to say—everything that the First Amendment permits—you would get this sort of cesspool or mosh pit of online speech that most people don’t actually want to see,” she said. “Users would run away and advertisers would run away and we wouldn’t have functioning platforms for civic discourse.”
Even companies like Parler and Gab—which pride themselves on being unyielding bastions of free speech—have begun to engage in content moderation.
“There’s not really a left right divide on whether that’s a good idea, because nobody actually wants nothing but porn and bullying and pro-anorexia content and other dangerous or garbage content all the time on the internet.”
She explained that this is a double-edged sword, because while consumers seem to value some level of moderation, companies moderating their platforms have a huge amount of influence over what their consumers see and say.
What problems do critics of Section 230 want addressed?
Internet Association President and CEO Dane Snowden stated that most of the problems surrounding the Section 230 discussion boil down to a fundamental disagreement over the problems that legislators are trying to solve.
Changing the language of Section 230 would impact not just the tech industry: “[Section 230] impacts ISPs, libraries, and universities,” he said, “Things like self-publishing, crowdsourcing, Wikipedia, how-to videos—all those things are impacted by any kind of significant neutering of Section 230.”
Section 230 was created to give users the ability and security to create content online without fear of legal reprisals, he said.
Another significant supporter of the status quo was Chamber of Progress CEO Adam Kovacevich.
“I don’t think Section 230 needs to be fixed. I think it needs [a better] publicist.” Kovacevich stated that policymakers need to gain a better appreciation for Section 230, “If you took away 230 You would have you’d give companies two bad options: either turn into Disneyland or turn into a wasteland.”
“Either turn into a very highly curated experience where only certain people have the ability to post content, or turn into a wasteland where essentially anything goes because a company fears legal liability,” Kovacevich said.
Judge Rules Exemption Exists in Section 230 for Twitter FOSTA Case
Latest lawsuit illustrates the increasing fragility of Section 230 legal protections.
August 24, 2021—A California court has allowed a lawsuit to commence against Twitter from two victims of sexual trafficking, who allege the social media company initially refused to remove content that exploited the underaged plaintiffs – and then went viral.
The anonymous plaintiffs allege that they were manipulated into making pornographic videos of themselves through another social media app, Snapchat, after which the videos were posted on Twitter. When the plaintiffs asked Twitter to take down the posts, it refused, and it was only after the Department of Homeland Security got involved that the social media company complied.
At issue in the case is whether Twitter had any obligation to remove the content at least “immediately” under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which provides legal liability protections for the content the platforms’ users post.
The court ruled Thursday that the case should proceed after finding that Twitter knowingly knew such content was on the site, had to have known it was sex trafficking, and refused to do something about it immediately.
“The Court finds that these allegations are sufficient to allege an ongoing pattern of conduct amounting to a tacit agreement with the perpetrators in this case to allow them to post videos and photographs it knew or should have known were related to sex trafficking without blocking their accounts or the Videos,” the decision read.
“In sum, the Court finds that Plaintiffs have stated a claim for civil liability under the [Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act] on the basis of beneficiary liability and that the claim falls within the exemption to Section 230 immunity created by FOSTA.”
The Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act and the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act that became the package law SESTA-FOSTA was passed in 2018 and amended immunity claims under Section 230 to exclude enforcement of federal or state sex trafficking laws from intermediary protections.
The court dismissed other claims against the company made by the plaintiffs, but met the relatively low bar to move the case forward.
The plaintiffs allege that Twitter violated the TVPRA because it allegedly knew about the videos, benefitted from them and did nothing to address the problem before it went viral.
Twitter argued that FOSTA, as applied to the CDA, only narrowly applies to websites that are “knowingly assisting and profiting from reprehensible crimes;” the plaintiffs allegedly fail to show that the company “affirmatively participated” in such crimes; and the company cannot be held liable “simply because it did not take the videos down immediately.”
Experts asserted companies may hesitate to bring Section 230 defense in court
The case is yet another instance of U.S. courts increasingly poking holes in arguments brought by technology companies that suggests they cannot be liable for content on their platforms, per Section 230, which is currently the subject of hot debate in Washington about whether to reform it or completely abolish it.
A number of state judges have ruled against Amazon, for example, and its Section 230 defense in a number of case-specific instances in Texas and California. Experts on a panel in May said if courts keep ruling against the defense, there may be a deluge of lawsuits to come against companies.
And last month, citing some of these cases, lawyers argued that big tech companies may begin to shy away from bringing the 230 defense to court in fear of awakening lawmakers to changing legal views on the provision that could ignite its reform.
Facebook, Google, Twitter Register to Lobby Congress on Section 230
Companies also want to discuss cybersecurity, net neutrality, taxes and privacy.
August 3, 2021 — The largest social media companies have registered to lobby Congress on Section 230, according to lobby records.
Facebook, Google, and Twitter filed new paperwork late last month to discuss the internet liability provision under the Communications Decency Act, which protects these companies from legal trouble for content their users post.
Facebook’s registration specifically mentions the Safe Tech Act, an amendment to the provision proposed earlier this year by Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, Mark Warner, D-Virginia, and Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, which would largely keep the provision’s protections except for content the platforms are paid for.
A separate Facebook registration included discussion on the “repeal” of the provision.
Other issues included in the Menlo Park-based company’s registration are privacy, data security, online advertising, and general regulations on the social media industry.
Google also wants to discuss taxes and cybersecurity, as security issues take center stage following high-profile attacks and as international proposals for a new tax regime on tech companies emerge.
Notable additional subject matters Twitter includes in its registration are content moderation practices, data security, misinformation, and net neutrality, as the Federal Communications Commission is being urged to bring back Obama-era policies friendly to the principle that ensures content cannot be given preferential treatment on networks.
Section 230 has gripped Congress
Social media critics have been foaming at the mouth over possible retaliatory measures against the technology companies that have taken increasingly strong measures against those that violate its policies.
Those discussions picked up steam when, at the beginning of the year, former President Donald Trump was banned from Twitter, and then from Facebook and other platforms, for allegedly stoking the Capitol Hill riot on January 6. (Trump has since filed a lawsuit as a private citizen against the social media giants for his removal.)
Since the Capitol riot, a number of proposals have been put forward to amend — in some cases completely repeal — the provision to address what some Republicans are calling outright censorship by social media companies. Even Florida tried to take matters into its own hands when it made law rules that penalized social media companies that banned politicians. That law has since been put on hold by the courts.
The social media giants, and its allies in the industry, have pressed the importance of the provision, which they say have allowed once-fledgling companies like Facebook to be what it is today. And some representatives think reform of the law could lean more toward amendment than outright repeal. But lawyers have warned about a shift in attitude toward those liability protections, as more judges in courts across the country hold big technology companies accountable for harm caused by the platforms.
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