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Section 230

Senate Commerce Committee Advances FCC Nominee Nathan Simington to Floor Debate

Jericho Casper

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Screenshot of Sen. Richard Blumenthal from the Senate Commerce Committee meeting

December 2, 2020 — This Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation on Wednesday morning voted 14-12 to advance Federal Communications Commission nominee Nathan Simington to the Senate chamber floor.

While the full Senate will still have to consider his nomination, the committee’s party-line vote indicates he could make it through the Republican upper chamber largely unscathed.

Committee Democrats raised an array of concerns over Simington during the nomination hearing.

“What’s at stake here is more than just a single nominee,” said Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut. “It is in fact the independence of the FCC.” Blumenthal said he plans to do everything in his power to put a hold on Simington’s nomination, and that he regretted “the committee was rushing the decision.”

Ranking Member Senator Maria Cantwell, D-Washington, said it was important to remind present members of the process that brought Mr. Simington before the committee today. Simington was nominated just a few short weeks after “the White House abruptly and unexpectedly pulled its renomination of Commissioner Mike O’Rielly, just days after the committee reported the renomination to the Senate,” said Cantwell.

Screenshot of Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., at the Senate Commerce Committee meeting

She said O’Rielly’s renomination was pulled as a retaliation for him speaking his mind about “problems with the FCC trying to issue rules related to Section 230 at the president’s behest.”

Simington, an official at the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration, came under fire for playing a key role in writing the agency’s petition to the FCC seeking modifications to Section 230, following President Donald Trump‘s executive order in May.

Blumenthal criticized Simington for being a close ally of President Trump, saying it appeared he was “nominated for one purpose, to support the president’s indefensible assault on the First Amendment.”

An email to Fox News about Section 230 and the election

Blumenthal further said that Simington failed to disclose information during his nomination hearing on November 10.

According to Blumenthal, one of Simington’s e-mails revealed that he enlisted media personnel at Fox News to “help get the FCC onboard more quickly” with the Section 230 effort, and therefore to “ensure a freer and surer social media landscape going into the election season this Fall.”

The email between Simington and a Fox News correspondent further stated that “restraining social media companies was of concern to the presidency and down ballot.”

“We now know based on his e-mail that Simington used media personnel at Fox News to put direct pressure on the FCC to move forward on the Administrations Section 230 petition,” said Cantwell. “This involvement to me sounds significant, and I do not support his nomination.”

Blumenthal further said that Simington refused to recuse himself from the matter involving Section 230.

“I’ve asked him to recuse himself from issues relating to Section 230,” said Blumenthal. “I will continue this fight on the Senate floor I will continue to do everything I can to hold this nomination.”

Next stages for broadband in the Biden administration

Cantwell and Blumenthal noted the new importance of the FCC’s role since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We face right now a national emergency,” said Blumenthal. “Both a pandemic and an economic crisis that requires this agency to be more active than ever in protecting consumers and our telecommunications systems.” Blumenthal said he fears the outcome of this nomination will be a deadlock of the commission in the middle of a national crisis.

Simington’s nomination very well may deadlock the FCC and block the Biden administration’s agenda for a significant period of time. Following Republican Chairman Ajit Pai‘s planned departure on January 20, Simington’s seat would leave the commission with two Democrats and two Republicans until the president-elect pushes through his own nominee.

“Perhaps the telecommunications and media companies want that type of deadlock,” said Blumenthal. “They may want for an FCC that is absent and neutralized.”

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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