November 10, 2020 — Members of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation grilled President Donald Trump’s proposed nominee to the Federal Communications Commission, Nathan Simington, on his stance on the FCC’s jurisdiction to interpret Section 230, during a nominations hearing on Tuesday.
While there were two other nominees for federal agency’s present to testify, members of the Committee directed the majority of their questions to Simington, which he mostly attempted to deflect, saying he needed more internal information to answer.
Nate Simington, a very smart and qualified individual, is having his Senate hearing today. Republicans will hopefully confirm him to the FCC ASAP! We need action NOW on this very important nomination!! @SenatorWicker @MarshaBlackburn @senatemajldr
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 10, 2020
“During your time working at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, you effectively acted as an arm of the president,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., highlighting Simington’s active involvement in crafting the Commerce Department’s petition to the FCC to force the agency to re-interpret Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.
“Trump’s tweet makes it clear what he expects from you, which I think should deeply trouble us all,” said Blumenthal, referencing the president’s tweet to Committee Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Mississippi, and others, before the hearing, which called for them to act now on Simington’s “important nomination” by confirming him to the FCC as soon as possible.
Many doubted Simington’s nomination would be confirmed by January, but Tuesday’s hearing introduced a new sense of urgency behind the nomination. The tweets-in-real-time promotion by Trump seemed raise the specter pushing a confirmation – as with the Supreme Court – that, at least in the president’s mind, would bear upon decision-making in the wake of the election.
“The FCC should remain free from political interference,” said Blumenthal, adding that the agency may diminish its independence and become a tool of the outgoing president for the next 70 days.
Simington said he has not had discussions with White House about Section 230
Simington said early on in the questioning session that he supports the FCC’s jurisdiction to clarify Section 230 rulemaking, as proposed by Chairman Ajit Pai in mid-October.
“I do think Section 230 needs to be reformed,” said Simington. He said that he has not had any discussion with the White House on Section 230 legislative proposals.
While Blumenthal demanded that Simington commit to not voting on Section 230 rulemaking, Simington said he believed that such a pledge would be premature to make. However, Simington did promise his first action if nominated would be to talk the issue over with the FCC’s ethics counsel.
Simington promised to work to maintain a “free and open internet” in response to a question from Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, questioning his views on what Cruz called “censorship” by big tech companies. He maintained that censorship is “primarily not the concern of the FCC.”
During his opening statement, Simington committed to four values he intends to defend, if confirmed: Regulatory stability through vigorous competition, universal connectivity, national security, and public interest.
While Simington said he would fight for universal connectivity and the public good, he refused to commit to extending the FCC’s temporary interpretation of the E-Rate Program, which is currently enabling educational institutions to use federal funds to increase the internet access available to students who have been sent home.
“I’m troubled by your lack of specificity on expanding the E-Rate Program,” said Blumenthal in response.
Withdrawl of Michael O’Rielly’s nomination and background of Simington
Before his nomination, Nathan Simington was a senior adviser at the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the president’s policy arm for telecommunications policy.
In addition to his work at NTIA, Simington previously worked at the law firms of Mayer Brown, Kirkland and Ellis, and Chapman and Cutler.
Simington was nominated on September 16 to fill a vacancy after the White House withdrew Commissioner Michael O’Rielly’s nomination to serve another term at the FCC.
President Trump withdrew O’Rielly’s nomination on August 3, after the commissioner made comments expressing doubts over proposals that the FCC target social media companies for the way they regulate content.
If confirmed, Simington would fill the seat that will be vacated by O’Rielly, who has been on the commission since 2013. Both are Republicans, but O’Rielly told C-SPAN in July the he held deep reservations over proposals to target social media platforms for the way that they curate their content.
Experts Warn Against Total Repeal of Section 230
Panelists note shifting definition of offensive content.
Experts emphasized that it is not possible for platforms to remove from their site all content that people may believe to be dangerous. They argue that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which shields platforms from legal liability with respect to what their users post, is necessary in at least some capacity.
During discussion between these experts at Broadband Breakfast’s Live Online Event on Wednesday, Alex Feerst, the co-founder of the Digital Trust and Safety Partnership, who used to work as a content moderator, said that to a certain extent it is impossible for platforms to moderate speech that is “dangerous” because every person has differing opinions about what speech they consider to be dangerous. He says it is this ambiguity that Section 230 protects companies from.
Still, Feerst believes that platforms should hold some degree of liability for the content of their sites as harm mitigation with regards to dangerous speech is necessary where possible. He believes that the effects of artificial intelligence’s use by platforms makes some degree of liability even more essential.
Particularly with the amount of online speech to be reviewed by moderators in the internet age, Feerst says the clear-cut moderation standards are too messy and expensive to be viable options.
Matt Gerst, vice president for legal and policy affairs at the Internet Association, and Shane Tews, nonresident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, also say that while content moderation is complex, it is necessary. Scott McCollough, attorney at McCollough Law Firm, says large social media companies like Facebook are not the causes of all the problems with social media that are in the national spotlight right now, but rather that social features of today’s society, such as the extreme prevalence of conflict, are to blame for this focus on social media.
Proposals for change
Rick Lane, CEO of Iggy Ventures, proposes that reform of Section 230 should include a requirement for social media platforms to make very clear what content is and is not allowed on their sites. McCullough echoed this concern, saying that many moderation actions platforms take presently do not seem to be consistent with those platforms’ stated terms and conditions, and that individual states across the nation should be able to look at these instances on a case-by-case basis to determine whether platforms fairly apply their terms and conditions.
Feerst highlighted the nuance of this issue by saying that people’s definitions of “consistent” are naturally subjective, but agrees with McCullough that users who have content removed should be notified of such, as well as the reasoning for moderators’ action.
Lane also believes that rightfully included in the product of Section 230 reform will be a requirement for platforms to demonstrate a reasonable standard of care and moderate illegal and other extremely dangerous content on their sites. Tews generally agreed with Lane that such content moderation is complex, as she sees a separation between freedom of speech and illegal activity.
Gerst highlighted concerns from companies the Internet Association represents that government regulation coming from Section 230 reform will require widely varied platforms to standardize their operation approaches, diminishing innovation on the internet.
Democrats Use Whistleblower Testimony to Launch New Effort at Changing Section 230
The Justice Against Malicious Algorithms Act seeks to target large online platforms that push harmful content.
WASHINGTON, October 14, 2021 – House Democrats are preparing to introduce legislation Friday that would remove legal immunities for companies that knowingly allow content that is physically or emotionally damaging to its users, following testimony last week from a Facebook whistleblower who claimed the company is able to push harmful content because of such legal protections.
The Justice Against Malicious Algorithms Act would amend Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act – which provides legal liability protections to companies for the content their users post on their platform – to remove that shield when the platform “knowingly or recklessly uses an algorithm or other technology to recommend content that materially contributes to physical or severe emotional injury,” according to a Thursday press release, which noted that the legislation will not apply to small online platforms with fewer than five million unique monthly visitors or users.
The legislation is relatively narrow in its target: algorithms that rely on the personal user’s history to recommend content. It won’t apply to search features or algorithms that do not rely on that personalization and won’t apply to web hosting or data storage and transfer.
Reps. Anna Eshoo, D-California, Frank Pallone Jr., D-New Jersey, Mike Doyle, D-Pennsylvania, and Jan Schakowsky, D-Illinois, plan to introduce the legislation a little over a week after Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen alleged that the company misrepresents how much offending content it terminates.
Citing Haugen’s testimony before the Senate on October 5, Eshoo said in the release that “Facebook is knowingly amplifying harmful content and abusing the immunity of Section 230 well beyond congressional intent.
“The Justice Against Malicious Algorithms Act ensures courts can hold platforms accountable when they knowingly or recklessly recommend content that materially contributes to harm. This approach builds on my bill, the Protecting Americans from Dangerous Algorithms Act, and I’m proud to partner with my colleagues on this important legislation.”
The Protecting Americans from Dangerous Algorithms Act was introduced with Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-New Jersey, last October to hold companies responsible for “algorithmic amplification of harmful, radicalizing content that leads to offline violence.”
From Haugen testimony to legislation
Haugen claimed in her Senate testimony that according to internal research estimates, Facebook acts against just three to five percent of hate speech and 0.6 percent of violence incitement.
“The reality is that we’ve seen from repeated documents in my disclosures is that Facebook’s AI systems only catch a very tiny minority of offending content and best content scenario in the case of something like hate speech at most they will ever get 10 to 20 percent,” Haugen testified.
Haugen was catapulted into the national spotlight after she revealed herself on the television program 60 Minutes to be the person who leaked documents to the Wall Street Journal and the Securities and Exchange Commission that reportedly showed Facebook knew about the mental health harm its photo-sharing app Instagram has on teens but allegedly ignored them because it inconvenienced its profit-driven motive.
Earlier this year, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said the company was developing an Instagram version for kids under 13. But following the Journal story and calls by lawmakers to backdown from pursuing the app, Facebook suspended the app’s development and said it was making changes to its apps to “nudge” users away from content that they find may be harmful to them.
Haugen’s testimony versus Zuckerberg’s Section 230 vision
In his testimony before the House Energy and Commerce committee in March, Zuckerberg claimed that the company’s hate speech removal policy “has long been the broadest and most aggressive in the industry.”
This claim has been the basis for the CEO’s suggestion that Section 230 be amended to punish companies for not creating systems proportional in size and effectiveness to the company’s or platform’s size for removal of violent and hateful content. In other words, larger sites would have more regulation and smaller sites would face fewer regulations.
Or in Zuckerberg’s words to Congress, “platforms’ intermediary liability protection for certain types of unlawful content [should be made] conditional on companies’ ability to meet best practices to combat the spread of harmful content.”
Facebook has previously pushed for FOSTA-SESTA, a controversial 2018 law which created an exception for Section 230 in the case of advertisements related prostitution. Lawmakers have proposed other modifications to the liability provision, including removing protections in the case for content that the platform is paid for and for allowing the spread of vaccine misinformation.
Zuckerberg said companies shouldn’t be held responsible for individual pieces of content which could or would evade the systems in place so long as the company has demonstrated the ability and procedure of “adequate systems to address unlawful content.” That, he said, is predicated on transparency.
But according to Haugen, “Facebook’s closed design means it has no oversight — even from its own Oversight Board, which is as blind as the public. Only Facebook knows how it personalizes your feed for you. It hides behind walls that keep the eyes of researchers and regulators from understanding the true dynamics of the system.” She also alleges that Facebook’s leadership hides “vital information” from the public and global governments.
An Electronic Frontier Foundation study found that Facebook lags behind competitors on issues of transparency.
Where the parties agree
Zuckerberg and Haugen do agree that Section 230 should be amended. Haugen would amend Section 230 “to make Facebook responsible for the consequences of their intentional ranking decisions,” meaning that practices such as engagement-based ranking would be evaluated for the incendiary or violent content they promote above more mundane content. If Facebook is choosing to promote content which damages mental health or incites violence, Haugen’s vision of Section 230 would hold them accountable. This change would not hold Facebook responsible for user-generated content, only the promotion of harmful content.
Both have also called for a third-party body to be created by the legislature which provides oversight on platforms like Facebook.
Haugen asks that this body be able to conduct independent audits of Facebook’s data, algorithms, and research and that the information be made available to the public, scholars and researchers to interpret with adequate privacy protection and anonymization in place. Beside taking into account the size and scope of the platforms it regulates, Zuckerberg asks that the practices of the body be “fair and clear” and that unrelated issues “like encryption or privacy changes” are dealt with separately.
With reporting from Riley Steward
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.
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