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Free Speech

Internet Industry Under the Microscope as House Committee Grills Witnesses on Liability for Online Content

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Photo of Section 230 hearing by Masha Abarinova

WASHINGTON, October 16, 2019 – The chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Wednesday said that technology companies need to “step up” and better address challenges surrounding online content. If not, they will likely have to navigate a world in which Section 230 of the Communication Decency Act is modified.

The internet is more sophisticated than it was when Section 230 was enacted as part of the Telecom Act of 1996, said Chairman Frank Pallone, D-N.J.

But Ranking Member Greg Walden, R-Ore., countered that the internet isn’t something that can be regulated and managed by the government. When discussing Section 230 reform, he said, there needs to be differentiation between illegal content and constitutionally protected speech.

The witnesses present at the hearing echoed the notion that Section 230 needs to stay. Yet the bill does have some issues that should be addressed.

Reddit Co-Founder and CEO Steve Huffman said that even slightly narrowing the constraints of the CDA could undermine the freedom of the internet. At Reddit, for example, individual users play a crucial role in self-moderation of content. Those interactions, he said, helped curb Russian meddling in the 2016 election via social media.

Section 230 needs to return to its original purpose, said Danielle Keats Citron, professor of law at Boston University School of Law. When the bill was first introduced, she said, its goal was to incentivize online platforms to be at the forefront of moderation.

Nowadays, Citron added, Section 230 has created a legal shield that covers the actions conducted by these platforms, including websites that may engage in illegal activities. This problem, she said, requires legal reform and can’t be solved by the market alone.

The CDA has helped regular people by removing much of the gatekeeping for social change, said Corynne McSherry, legal director at Electronic Frontier Foundation. Increasing company liability, she said, could lead to over-censorship and stifle competition as smaller firms would be burdened by regulation.

In contrast, Gretchen Peters, executive director at Alliance to Counter Crime Online, said that tech companies need to face greater liability in order for them to reduce online safety risks. Social media algorithms, she said, are used by terrorist organizations and other nefarious people to further their agendas.

Section 230 is more about liability than freedom of speech, she said. Because of safe harbors and broad interpretation of the bill, tech firms have failed to uphold their end of the bargain to protect people from dangerous online content.

Hany Farid, professor at the University of California, Berkeley, advised the Committee not to view artificial intelligence as the “savior” for content moderation. The billions of contents created every day, he said, would be too much for mere automation to handle. Human action is necessary to uphold a decent standard of online communication.

Google’s Global Head of Intellectual Property Policy Katherine Oyama said that her company’s ability to take action on questionable content is underpinned by the foundation of Section 230’s regulations.

The CDA helps differentiate the US from how countries such as China and Russia approach the internet, she said. Furthermore, weakening online safe harbors could have a recession-like impact on investment and cause companies to suffer more intensely from consumer litigation.

Without Section 230, Oyama added, online platforms would either not be able to filter content at all or over-filter content that needs to be heard, hurting both consumers and businesses.

Section 230

Parler Policy Exec Hopes ‘Sustainable’ Free Speech Change on Twitter if Musk Buys Platform

Parler’s Amy Peikoff said she wishes Twitter can follow in her social media company’s footsteps.

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Screenshot of Amy Peikoff

WASHINGTON, May 16, 2022 – A representative from a growing conservative social media platform said last week that she hopes Twitter, under new leadership, will emerge as a “sustainable” platform for free speech.

Amy Peikoff, chief policy officer of social media platform Parler, said as much during a Broadband Breakfast Live Online event Wednesday, in which she wondered about the implications of platforms banning accounts for views deemed controversial.

The social media world has been captivated by the lingering possibility that SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk could buy Twitter, which the billionaire has criticized for making decisions he said infringe on free speech.

Before Musk’s decision to go in on the company, Parler saw a surge in member sign-ups after former President Donald Trump was banned from Twitter for comments he made that the platform saw as encouraging the Capitol riots on January 6, 2021, a move Peikoff criticized. (Trump also criticized the move.)

Peikoff said she believes Twitter should be a free speech platform just like Parler and hopes for “sustainable” change with Musk’s promise.

“At Parler, we expect you to think for yourself and curate your own feed,” Peikoff told Broadband Breakfast Editor and Publisher Drew Clark. “The difference between Twitter and Parler is that on Parler the content is controlled by individuals; Twitter takes it upon itself to moderate by itself.”

She recommended “tools in the hands of the individual users to reward productive discourse and exercise freedom of association.”

Peikoff criticized Twitter for permanently banning Donald Trump following the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, and recounted the struggle Parler had in obtaining access to hosting services on AWS, Amazon’s web services platform.

Screenshot of Amy Peikoff

While she defended the role of Section 230 of the Telecom Act for Parler and others, Peikoff criticized what she described as Twitter’s collusion with the government. Section 230 provides immunity from civil suits for comments posted by others on a social media network.

For example, Peikoff cited a July 2021 statement by former White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki raising concerns with “misinformation” on social media. When Twitter takes action to stifle anti-vaccination speech at the behest of the White House, that crosses the line into a form of censorship by social media giants that is, in effect, a form of “state action.”

Conservatives censored by Twitter or other social media networks that are undertaking such “state action” are wrongfully being deprived of their First Amendment rights, she said.

“I would not like to see more of this entanglement of government and platforms going forward,” she said Peikoff and instead to “leave human beings free to information and speech.”

Screenshot of Drew Clark and Amy Peikoff during Wednesday’s Broadband Breakfast’s Online Event

Our Broadband Breakfast Live Online events take place on Wednesday at 12 Noon ET. Watch the event on Broadband Breakfast, or REGISTER HERE to join the conversation.

Wednesday, May 11, 2022, 12 Noon ET – Mr. Musk Goes to Washington: Will Twitter’s New Owner Change the Debate About Social Media?

The acquisition of social media powerhouse Twitter by Elon Musk, the world’s richest man, raises a host of issues about social media, free speech, and the power of persuasion in our digital age. Twitter already serves as the world’s de facto public square. But it hasn’t been without controversy, including the platform’s decision to ban former President Donald Trump in the wake of his tweets during the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. Under new management, will Twitter become more hospitable to Trump and his allies? Does Twitter have a free speech problem? How will Mr. Musk’s acquisition change the debate about social media and Section 230 of the Telecommunications Act?

Guests for this Broadband Breakfast for Lunch session:

  • Amy Peikoff, Chief Policy Officer, Parler
  • Drew Clark (host), Editor and Publisher, Broadband Breakfast

Amy Peikoff is the Chief Policy Officer of Parler. After completing her Ph.D., she taught at universities (University of Texas, Austin, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, United States Air Force Academy) and law schools (Chapman, Southwestern), publishing frequently cited academic articles on privacy law, as well as op-eds in leading newspapers across the country on a range of issues. Just prior to joining Parler, she founded and was President of the Center for the Legalization of Privacy, which submitted an amicus brief in United States v. Facebook in 2019.

Drew Clark is the Editor and Publisher of BroadbandBreakfast.com and a nationally-respected telecommunications attorney. Drew brings experts and practitioners together to advance the benefits provided by broadband. Under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, he served as head of a State Broadband Initiative, the Partnership for a Connected Illinois. He is also the President of the Rural Telecommunications Congress.

Illustration by Mohamed Hassan used with permission

WATCH HERE, or on YouTubeTwitter and Facebook.

As with all Broadband Breakfast Live Online events, the FREE webcasts will take place at 12 Noon ET on Wednesday.

SUBSCRIBE to the Broadband Breakfast YouTube channel. That way, you will be notified when events go live. Watch on YouTubeTwitter and Facebook

See a complete list of upcoming and past Broadband Breakfast Live Online events.

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Section 230

Leave Section 230 Alone, Panelists Urge Government

The debate on what government should — or shouldn’t — do with respect to liability protections for platforms continues.

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Photo of Josh Hammer, Paul Larken and Niam Yaraghi by Douglas Blair via Twitter

WASHINGTON, May 10, 2022 – A panelist at a Heritage Foundation event on Thursday said that the government should not make changes to Section 230, which protects online platforms from being liable for the content their users post.

However, the other panelist, Newsweek Opinion Editor Josh Hammer, said technology companies have been colluding with the government to stifle speech. Hammer said that Section 230 should be interpreted and applied more vigorously against tech platforms.

Countering this view was Niam Yaraghi, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Technology Innovation.

“While I do agree with the notion that what these platforms are doing is not right, I am much more optimistic” than Hammer, Yaraghi said. “I do not really like the government to come in and do anything about it, because I believe that a capitalist market, an open market, would solve the issue in the long run.”

Addressing a question from the moderator about whether antitrust legislation or stricter interpretation of Section 230 should be the tool to require more free speech on big tech platforms, Hammer said that “Section 230 is the better way to go here.”

Yaraghi, by contrast, said that it was incumbent on big technology platforms to address content moderation, not the government.

In March, Vint Cerf, a vice president and chief internet evangelist at Google, and the president of tech lobbyist TechFreedom warned against government moderation of content on the internet as Washington focuses on addressing the power of big tech platforms.

While some say Section 230 only protects “neutral platforms”, others claim it allows powerful companies to ignore user harm. Legislation from the likes of Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., would exempt 230 protections for platforms that fail to address Covid mis- and disinformation.

Correction: A previous version of this story said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., agreed that Section 230 only protected “neutral platforms,” or that it allowed tech companies to ignore user harm. Wyden, one of the authors of the provision in the 1996 Telecom Act, instead believes that the law is a “sword and shield” to protect against small companies, organizations and movements against legal liability for what users post on their websites.

Additional correction: A previous version of this story misattributed a statement by Niam Yaraghi to Josh Hammer. The story has been corrected, and additional context added.

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Free Speech

FCC Commissioner Carr Hopes Musk Follows Through on Proposed Twitter Speech Reforms

Carr said he’s “very glad to hear” of Musk’s Twitter purchase, but still thinks Section 230 reform is necessary.

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Photo of FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr (left), Commissioner Nathan Simington and former Acting Chair Mignon Clyburn by Drew Clark

WASHINGTON, May 6, 2022 – On Friday Federal Communications Commissioner Brendan Carr praised billionaire Elon Musk’s proposed free speech policy for Twitter following Musk’s purchase of the platform.

Musk has pledged that under his ownership, Twitter will permit any speech from users.

Speaking at the Free State Foundation’s Annual Policy Conference, Carr stated that he is “very glad to hear” of Musk’s purchase but that speech reform online should not depend upon trusting a billionaire owner and thus Section 230 reform should still take place.

During the event Carr also offered insights on issues ranging from the outlook of the bipartisan infrastructure bill’s deployment to spectrum debates in the release of 5G.

He called for aggression from the FCC in enforcing spectrum matters, saying the FCC was entitled to approve the release of 5G networks early this year when the safety of such releases were successfully challenged and delayed by the Federal Aviation Administration and Department of Transportation.

Praising the opportunity of the bipartisan infrastructure bill, Carr stated that for the first time he is aware of there are now “enough federal resources to end the digital divide in this country.”

Later in the event, representatives from industry groups spoke to what they said are significant challenges facing deployment of infrastructure bill funds.

Former FCC chairman and NCTA ­– The Internet & Television Association president and CEO Michael Powell said that challenges lie in the Commerce Department and Treasury’s disbursement of bill funds because they have much less skill and experience working with broadband than other government departments do.

He also said the existence of multiple, unintegrated broadband access maps to base disbursement on is a potential road bump as well as the issue of whether individual states can overrule federal maps should they prefer any maps they’ve created on their own.

US Telecom’s president and CEO Jonathan Spalter said that for many of his group’s members it will be difficult to meet the Buy America requirements of the infrastructure bill.

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