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Section 230

FCC Chairman Under Trump Declares Agency’s Authority to Define Language on Political Speech

Liana Sowa

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Caricature of Ajit Pai by DonkeyHotey used with permission

October 16, 2020 – The Federal Communications Commission dove deep into political territory on Thursday by declaring that the agency had authority to rule on questions pertaining to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

The move was widely criticized by technology industry and public advocacy organizations.

Grabbing hold of a recent statement in denial of certiorari by Justice Clarence Thomas that was critical of Section 230, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai on Thursday said: “Members of all three branches of the federal government have expressed serious concerns about the prevailing interpretation of the immunity set forth in Section 230 of the Communications Act. There is bipartisan support in Congress to reform the law. The U.S. Department of Commerce has petitioned the Commission to ‘clarify ambiguities in section 230.’ And earlier this week, [Thomas] pointed out that courts have relied upon ‘policy and purpose arguments to grant sweeping protections to Internet platforms’ that appear to go far beyond the actual text of the provision.”

With that as background, Pai said that the agency’s general counsel “has informed me that the FCC has the legal authority to interpret Section 230,” and that he therefore intended to move forward with the Trump Administration’s efforts to narrow the scope of the law.

The Center for Democracy and Technology, Public Knowledge, Tech Freedom, the Computer and Communications Industry Association and the Consumer Technology Association blasted the agency for the stance.

Tech Freedom said: “When a Democratic FCC Chairman pushed neutrality regulations at the behest of President Obama, Ajit Pai said: ‘We shouldn’t be a rubber stamp for political decisions made by the White House.’ Now Pai’s doing essentially what he lambasted Tom Wheeler for: proposing sweeping ‘neutrality’ rules at a President’s behest based on unprecedented claims of legal authority to regulate Internet services.”

Added Public Knowledge: “The FCC does not have authority to ‘clarify’ Section 230 — it is not a statute that Congress gave the agency any authority over whatsoever,” said John Bergmayer, legal director at Public Knowledge. “Additionally, if Chairman Pai’s planned rulemaking is at all informed by the NTIA petition, it is likely to be fatally flawed in other ways, as the NTIA insists on an interpretation of the statute that is contradicted by the plain meaning of the words that Congress enacted, and, in fact, that contradicts itself.”

CCIA agreed that the FCC does not have authority to issue rulemaking and has expressed this concern on multiple occasions.

“Retaliating against companies enforcing their Terms of Service by initiating regulatory proceedings is not how democracies are supposed to work,” said CCIA President Matt Schruers. “Being a political figure isn’t a free pass to break digital services’ content rules.”

Avery Gardiner, senior fellow for competition, data, and power at the Center for Democracy and Technology said at a Federal Communications Bar Association event in September that Section 230 reform “shouldn’t happen after an executive order from a disgruntled president.” Instead, she pointed to Congress’ authority to reform 230.

When prodded by FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr, who said he believed the FCC had rulemaking authority over Section 230, Gigi Sohn, distinguished fellow at the Georgetown Law Institute for Technology Law and Policy, admitted that while she did not want the FCC to have this authority, they very well might.

Sohn’s objections to this authority echoed the objections of Jamie Susskind, vice president of policy and regulatory affairs at Consumer Technology Association, who said that it was in Congress’ jurisdiction—not the FCC’s—to amend Section 230.

Reporter Liana Sowa grew up in Simsbury, Connecticut. She studied editing and publishing as a writing fellow at Brigham Young University, where she mentored upperclassmen on neuroscience research papers. She enjoys reading and journaling, and marathon-runnning and stilt-walking.

Section 230

Sen. Mike Lee Promotes Bills Valuing Federal Spectrum, Requiring Content Moderation Disclosures

Tim White

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Screenshot of Mike Lee taken from Silicon Slopes event

April 5, 2021 – Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, said Friday spectrum used by federal agencies is not being utilized efficiently, following legislation he introduced early last year that would evaluate the allocation and value of federally-reserved spectrum.

The Government Spectrum Valuation Act, or S.553 and introduced March 3, directs the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to consult with the Federal Communications Commission and Office of Management and Budget to estimate the value of spectrum between 3 kilohertz and 95 gigahertz that is assigned to federal agencies.

Lee spoke at an event hosted by the Utah tech association Silicon Slopes on Friday about the legislation, in addition to other topics, including Section 230.

Some bands on the spectrum are reserved for federal agencies as they need it, but it’s not always managed efficiently, Lee said. Some are used by the Department of Defense for ‘national security,’ for example, but when asked what that spectrum is used for, we’re told, ‘we can’t tell you because of national security,’ he said.

“Just about everything we do on the internet is carried out through a mobile device, and all of that requires access to spectrum,” he said.

He said that lives are becoming more affected and enhanced by our connection to the internet, often through a wireless connection, which is increasing the need for the government to efficiently manage spectrum bandwidth, he said. Some of the bands are highly valuable, he said, comparing them to the “beach front property” of spectrum.

Legislation changing Section 230

Lee also spoke on Section 230, a statute that protects online companies from liability for content posted by their users. It’s a hot topic for policymakers right now as they consider regulating social media platforms.

Both Republicans and Democrats want more regulation for tech companies, but for different reasons. Democrats want more moderation against alleged hate speech or other content, citing the January 6 riot at the Capitol as one example of not enough censorship. Republicans on the other hand, including Lee, allege social media companies censor or remove right-leaning political content but do not hold the same standard for left-leaning content.

Lee highlighted that platforms have the right to be as politically-biased as they want, but it’s a problem when their terms of service or CEOs publicly state they are neutral, but then moderate content from a non-neutral standpoint, he said.

Lee expressed hesitation about repealing or changing Section 230. “If you just repealed it altogether, it would give, in my view, an undo advantage to big market incumbents,” he said. One solution is supplementing Section 230 with additional clarifying language or new legislation, he said.

That’s why he came up with the Promise Act, legislation he introduced on February 24 that would require the disclosure of rules for content moderation, and permit the Federal Trade Commission to take corrective action against companies who violate those disclosed rules. “I don’t mean it to be an exclusive solution, but I think it is a reasonably achievable step toward some type of sanity in this area,” he said.

Senator Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and a couple of her colleagues also drafted Section 230 legislation that would maintain the spirit of the liability provision, but would remove it for paid content.

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Section 230

Pressed by Congress, Big Tech Defends Itself and Offers Few Solutions After Capitol Riot

Tim White

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Photo of Google CEO Sundar Pichai from a December 2018 hearing before the House Judiciary Committee by Drew Clark

March 26, 2021 – The heads of the largest social media companies largely defended their platforms, reiterated what they’ve done, and offered few solutions to the problems that ail them during a congressional hearing Thursday.

But, under harsh questioning from the House Energy and Commerce Committee, none of the CEOs of Google, Facebook or Twitter were given chance to respond to questions for more than 30 to 60 seconds on a given topic.

The hearing was about misinformation on social media in the fallout of the January 6 Capitol riot. The CEOs said dealing with the problem of dis- and misinformation on their platforms is more difficult than people think.

“The responsibility here lies with the people who took the actions to break the law and do the insurrection,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in response to a question about whether the platforms were to blame for the riot.

“Secondarily, also, the people who spread that content, including the president, but others as well, with repeated rhetoric over time, saying that the election was rigged and encouraging people to organize. I think those people bare the primary responsibility as well,” Zuckerberg said.

Zuckerberg added that “polarization was rising in America long before social networks were even invented,” he said. He blamed the “political and media environment that drives Americans apart.”

A ‘complex question’ of fault

Google CEO Sundar Pichai said it’s a “complex question” in response to the question of who’s at fault for the riot. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, however, was more direct: “Yes, but you also have to take into consideration a broader ecosystem; it’s not just about the technology platforms we use,” he said.

It was the first time Zuckerberg, Dorsey and Pichai appeared on Capitol Hill since the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. The hearing was spurred by the riot and the turbulent presidential election that concluded in Joe Biden’s win and Donald Trump’s ban from Twitter and Facebook. Congress has turned their eye toward the social media companies for several months on possible Section 230 reform to address the alleged problems in the tech industry.

“Our nation is drowning in misinformation driven by social media. Platforms that were once used to share kids with grandparents are all-too-often havens of hate, harassment and division,” said Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Penn., chairman of the Communications and Technology subcommittee, who led the hearing. Doyle alleged the platforms “supercharged” the riot.

Both Democratic and Republican members of the committee laid out a variety of grievances during the five-hour meeting, and while they didn’t all share the same concerns, all agreed that something needs to be done.

“I hope you can take away from this hearing how serious we are, on both sides of the aisle, to see many of these issues that trouble Americans addressed,” Doyle said.

Congressional concerns

On the left side of the political aisle the main criticism against the tech giants was the spread of misinformation and extremism, including COVID-19 vaccines, climate change and the 2020 presidential election that Trump alleged was rigged against him.

“It is not an exaggeration to say that your companies have fundamentally and permanently transformed our very culture, and our understanding of the world,” said Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Illinois. “Much of this is for good, but it is also true that our country, our democracy, even our understanding of what is ‘truth’ has been harmed by the proliferation and dissemination of misinformation and extremism,” she said.

“Unfortunately, this disinformation and extremism doesn’t just stay online, it has real-world, often dangerous and even violent consequences, and the time has come to hold online platforms accountable,” said Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J.

From the right, Republican members voiced concerns about too much censorship, easy access to opioids, and the harm on children they said social media has.

“I’m deeply concerned by your decisions to operate your companies in a vague and biased manner, with little to no accountability, while using Section 230 as a shield for your actions and their real-world consequences,” said Rep. Bob Latta, R-Ohio. “Your companies had the power to silence the president of the United States, shut off legitimate journalism in Australia, shut down legitimate scientific debate on a variety of issues, dictate which articles or websites are seen by Americans when they search the internet,” he said.

“Your platforms are my biggest fear as a parent,” said Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Washington, expressing frustration over the impact that social media has on children. “It’s a battle for their development, a battle for their mental health, and ultimately, a battle for their safety,” she said, citing a rise of teen suicides since 2011. “I do not want you defining what is true for them, I do not want their future manipulated by your algorithms,” she said.

Platforms say it’s challenging, reiterate initiatives

In response to the many criticisms, Zuckerberg made it clear that while moderating content is central to address misinformation, it is important to protect speech as much as possible while taking down illegal content, which he said can be a huge challenge. As an example, bullying hurts the victim but there’s not a clear line where we can just censor speech, he said.

Pichai said that Google’s mission is about organizing and delivering information to the world and allowing free expression while also combatting misinformation. But it’s an evolving challenge, he said, because approximately 15 percent of google searches each day are new, and 500 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute. To reinforce that point, he cited the fact that 18 months ago no one had heard of COVID-19, and in 2020 ‘coronavirus’ was the most trending search.

Dorsey expressed a similar sentiment about the evolving challenge of balancing freedom of expression with content moderation. “We observe what’s happening on our service, we work to understand the ramifications, and we use that understanding to strengthen our operations. We push ourselves to improve based on the best information we have,” he said.

The best way to face new challenges is to narrow down the problem to have the greatest impact, Dorsey said. For example, disinformation is a broad concept, and we focused on disinformation leading to offline harm, he said. Twitter worked on three specific categories, he said, these included manipulated media, public health and civic integrity.

“Ultimately, we’re running a business, and a business wants to grow the number of customers it serves. Enforcing a policy is a business decision,” Dorsey said.

Dorsey noted Twitter’s new Bluesky project, a decentralized internet protocol that various social media companies would be able to utilize, rather than being owned by a single company. It will improve the social media environment by increasing innovation around business models, recommended algorithms, and moderation controls in the hands of individuals instead of private companies, he said. But others already working in a similar technology space say the project is not without its problems.

On Section 230 reform

On the question of changing Section 230 of the Telecommunications Act, which grants social media companies immunity from liability for user-generated content, Zuckerberg suggested two specific changes: Platforms need to issue transparency reports about harmful content, and need better moderation for content that is clearly illegal. These changes should only affect large social media platforms, he said, but did not specify the difference between a large and small platform.

Dorsey said those may be good ideas, but it could be difficult to determine what is a large and small platform, and having those stipulations may incentivize the wrong things.

When asked about Instagram’s new version for children, Zuckerberg confirmed it was in the planning stage and many details were still being worked out.

Several Democrats raised concerns about minority populations, citing as one example the March 16 shooting in Atlanta that killed eight people including several Asian American women. Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Cal., asked why various hashtags such as #kungflu and #chinavirus were not removed from Twitter.

Dorsey responded that Twitter does take action against hate speech, but it can also be a challenge because it’s not always simple to distinguish between content that supports an idea and counter speech that condemns the support of that idea.

The tech leaders were asked by multiple members about the platform algorithms failing to catch specific instances of content moderation. Democrats referred to examples of posts containing misinformation or hate speech, while Republicans used examples of conservative-based content being removed.

Both Zuckerberg and Dorsey said that their systems are not perfect and it’s not realistic to expect perfection. Some content will always slip by our radars that we have to address individually, Zuckerberg said.

In response to Rep. Steve Scalise’s reference to a 2020 New York Post story about Hunter Biden that was taken down, Dorsey said we have made mistakes in some instances.

Editor’s Note: This story has been revised to add in a second paragraph that more accurately captured the fact that, while the tech executives offered few solutions, they were given little opportunity to do so by members of Congress. Additionally, the word “secondarily” was added back into Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s statement about who bore responsibility for the insurrection.

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Section 230

Sen. Mark Warner Says His Section 230 Bill Is Crafted With Help of Tech Companies

Samuel Triginelli

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Photo of Sen. Mark Warner from December 2017 from his office

March 23, 2021 – Sen. Mark Warner, D-Virginia, said he and his staff are in “regular contact” with big tech representatives about Section 230 reform.

“Both my staff and I are in regular contact with a host of individuals on the tech side,” Warner said Monday at a Protocol webinar discussing internet intermediary liability provision Section 230.

“We have had a great deal of contact with Facebook; in the most senior levels on the performance team, we have had an ongoing conversation with Google, although sometimes they decided not to show in our hearings.

“My staff is in contact with major platforms entities and will continue to have a dialogue.”

The proposed legislation, which was brought forth by Warner, Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., would maintain immunity from legal consequences for whatever the platforms’ users post, but makes an exemption for content that the companies get paid for.

Critics of the proposal, including Senator Ron Wyden, D-Ore., have said that, if enacted, the change would effectively create a new form of liability on commercial relationships that would force “web hosts, cloud storage providers and even paid email services to purge their networks of any controversial speech.”

After consulting with interest groups, consultants, and experts, Warner declared that it is time to make some changes and get it right. “Some say the bill doesn’t go far enough; some say it goes too far, but I’m sure we got at the right point.”

Screenshot from the webinar

To make it clear what the bill does and what it doesn’t do, Warner shared that this legislation does not restrict anyone’s right to free speech, and he still wants “customers to be able to say about the good or bad of things they got at their local restaurant.”

The changes, Warner said, will address the disparity between big and small tech companies by maintaining protections for the latter but holding the former responsible for things they get paid for.

“In the late 90s, Section 230 was built to protect tech startups,” Warner said, but it has become a “get out of jail free card” for large corporations.

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