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Section 230

Senate Judiciary Committee Teases, and Then Pulls, Bills Dramatically Narrowing Section 230 Protections



Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham during the December 7 executive committee meeting

January 2, 2021 — When the Senate reconvenes on Sunday at 11:45 a.m., the body will gavel in for the first session of the 117th Congress. All bills not passed as of Friday, January 1, 2021 – the last day Congress was in session – will die.

One of those bills is the Eliminating Abusive and Rampant Neglect of Interactive Technologies Act of 2020, or EARN IT Act, S. 3368, introduced in March by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina. Among other provisions, the measure would have restricted the liability protection of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

Somewhat obscured amidst the controversy surrounding President Donald Trump veto’s of the Defense Department’s budget over Section 230 were Graham’s maneuverings. He attempted to water down protections for social media companies through the EARN IT Act and through another measure, the Online Content Policy Modernization Act, S. 4632. Bill will die on Sunday.

Last-minute efforts to gut or scale back Section 230

Graham’s measures were more tactical, and in addition to Trump’s unsuccessful broadside. Trump’s veto of the Defense bill was over-riden by the Senate on Friday. The over-ride was one of the last actions of the 116th Congress. It was also the first time a Trump veto had been overturned.

On Thursday, December 7, during an executive session of the Judiciary Committee, Graham nixed a vote on the Online Content Policy Modernization Act., S. 4632, that would have scaled back Section 230 protections even more than the EARN IT Act.

Indeed, online services would be exposed to liability if they remove content outside a limited set of categories.

Graham’s S. 4632 would have removed from Section 230’s liability protections the catch-all phrase “otherwise objectionable content.” He said this phrase has become “a hole in the bill,” which allows social media platforms to censor conservative sources and content.

“If you took that phrase out, it would limit their ability to censor and edit,” said Graham. “That’s what this effort is, to take that out that phrase and replace it with some guidance.”

Criticism and support — but mostly support — for slamming social media

Critics of the EARN IT Act argue it is a misguided attack on internet speech, which would make it harder for online platforms to take common-sense moderation measures and shield only those which agree to confine their moderation policies to a narrowly tailored set of rules, agreed upon by legislators.

“The result of this Amendment would be to disincentivize platforms from removing filth online,” said

Ranking Member Dianne Feinstein, D-California, “Congress should not make it more difficult for social media services to fight disinformation.”

Feinstein said the Graham’s proposed EARN IT Act was premature as it had not had an adequate hearing before the Committee and that regulating Section 230 may be “more complicated” than any of the members suspected.

During the meeting, Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Missouri, introduced an amendment to the Act which would guarantee third-party users implied private rights of action, allowing private parties to bring a lawsuit to court, even though no remedy is explicitly provided in the law.

While Hawley’s proposed amendment did not pass, many agreed guaranteeing third-party users’ private rights of action will be critical to a final congressional revision of Section 230 that may well happen in the 117th Congress.

The majority of committee members maintained that many more hearings will be necessary before proposing reforms to Section 230. At the close of the meeting, Graham withdrew the bill, saying the mission of the legislation was accomplished, in the sense that it got the committee to talk about changes to Section 230.

“There will be work going forward,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, “but there is a message in this conversation: the days of Section 230 are numbered. There will be reform.”

“The days of non-responsibility of big tech are over” Blumenthal said, adding that “this should not be a partisan issue.”

Debate flares over what constitutes ‘filth’ online

Section 230 grants platforms liability protections for the decisions they make to moderate and remove online speech; platforms are free to decide their own moderation policies however they see fit. Yet there is widespread disagreement about what types of content are worthy of being removed from social media platforms..

“This bill urges tech companies to not sensor ‘inflammatory conservative social media content’”, said Senator Dick Durbin, D-Illinois. “The questions is: How do you define this?”

“What line will be drawn, and where?,” questioned Durbin. “Lawful but awful content, such as that put forth by the proud boys, which is white supremacist, misogynistic, and could incite violence, by nature — are we including this?”

While Durbin strictly opposed the idea of a Section 230 reform allowing hate speech to flourish online, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said although he despises “Nazi ideology”, that he does not “want to silence them online.”

What Cruz referred to as an attempt by big tech to silence conservative voices, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-Rhode Island, called the effort of private companies to intervene in “powerful fraudulent disinformation campaigns” being employed by corporate interests against American citizens.

“To say you have to be fair” to all content, “misstates the question that we’re faced with,” said Whitehouse.

“In certain areas of public debate, there are very wealthy, very powerful special interests that have decided that the way to power in the United States of America is to run deliberate disinformation campaigns against and in their own country,” said Whitehouse, saying that the best example of this is the fossil fuel industry’s politicization of the issue of climate change.

“Now we see a similar disinformation operation run by the billionaires in right-wing media,” he said. “It is provenly false. For a company to be in a position to be able to say, ‘your crooked disinformation campaign has no platform here,’ I think is a legitimate decision on their part.”

Section 230

Section 230 Interpretation Debate Heats Up Ahead of Landmark Supreme Court Case

Panelists disagreed over the merits of Section 230’s protections and the extent to which they apply.



Screenshot of speakers at the Federalist Society webinar

WASHINGTON, January 25, 2023 — With less than a month to go before the Supreme Court hears a case that could dramatically alter internet platform liability protections, speakers at a Federalist Society webinar on Tuesday were sharply divided over the merits and proper interpretation of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

Gonzalez v. Google, which will go before the Supreme Court on Feb. 21, asks if Section 230 protects Google from liability for hosting terrorist content — and promoting that content via algorithmic recommendations.

If the Supreme Court agrees that “Section 230 does not protect targeted algorithmic recommendations, I don’t see a lot of the current social media platforms and the way they operate surviving,” said Ashkhen Kazaryan, a senior fellow at Stand Together.

Joel Thayer, president of the Digital Progress Institute, argued that the bare text of Section 230(c)(1) does not include any mention of the “immunities” often attributed to the statute, echoing an argument made by several Republican members of Congress.

“All the statute says is that we cannot treat interactive computer service providers or users — in this case, Google’s YouTube — as the publisher or speaker of a third-party post, such as a YouTube video,” Thayer said. “That is all. Warped interpretations from courts… have drastically moved away from the text of the statute to find Section 230(c)(1) as providing broad immunity to civil actions.”

Kazaryan disagreed with this claim, noting that the original co-authors of Section 230 — Sen. Ron Wyden, D-OR, and former Rep. Chris Cox, R-CA — have repeatedly said that Section 230 does provide immunity from civil liability under specific circumstances.

Wyden and Cox reiterated this point in a brief filed Thursday in support of Google, explaining that whether a platform is entitled to immunity under Section 230 relies on two prerequisite conditions. First, the platform must not be “responsible, in whole or in part, for the creation or development of” the content in question, as laid out in Section 230(f)(3). Second, the case must be seeking to treat the platform “as the publisher or speaker” of that content, per Section 230(c)(1).

The statute co-authors argued that Google satisfied these conditions and was therefore entitled to immunity, even if their recommendation algorithms made it easier for users to find and consume terrorist content. “Section 230 protects targeted recommendations to the same extent that it protects other forms of content presentation,” they wrote.

Despite the support of Wyden and Cox, Randolph May, president of the Free State Foundation, predicted that the case was “not going to be a clean victory for Google.” And in addition to the upcoming Supreme Court cases, both Congress and President Joe Biden could potentially attempt to reform or repeal Section 230 in the near future, May added.

May advocated for substantial reforms to Section 230 that would narrow online platforms’ immunity. He also proposed that a new rule should rely on a “reasonable duty of care” that would both preserve the interests of online platforms and also recognize the harms that fall under their control.

To establish a good replacement for Section 230, policymakers must determine whether there is “a difference between exercising editorial control over content on the one hand, and engaging in conduct relating to the distribution of content on the other hand… and if so, how you would treat those different differently in terms of establishing liability,” May said.

No matter the Supreme Court’s decision in Gonzalez v. Google, the discussion is already “shifting the Overton window on how we think about social media platforms,” Kazaryan said. “And we already see proposed regulation legislation on state and federal levels that addresses algorithms in many different ways and forms.”

Texas and Florida have already passed laws that would significantly limit social media platforms’ ability to moderate content, although both have been temporarily blocked pending litigation. Tech companies have asked the Supreme Court to take up the cases, arguing that the laws violate their First Amendment rights by forcing them to host certain speech.

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Section 230

Supreme Court Seeks Biden Administration’s Input on Texas and Florida Social Media Laws

The court has not yet agreed to hear the cases, but multiple justices have commented on their importance.



Photo of Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar courtesy of the U.S. Department of Justice

WASHINGTON, January 24, 2023 — The Supreme Court on Monday asked for the Joe Biden administration’s input on a pair of state laws that would prevent social media platforms from moderating content based on viewpoint.

The Republican-backed laws in Texas and Florida both stem from allegations that tech companies are censoring conservative speech. The Texas law would restrict platforms with at least 50 million users from removing or demonetizing content based on “viewpoint.” The Florida law places significant restrictions on platforms’ ability to remove any content posted by members of certain groups, including politicians.

Two trade groups — NetChoice and the Computer & Communications Industry Association — jointly challenged both laws, meeting with mixed results in appeals courts. They, alongside many tech companies, argue that the law would violate platforms’ First Amendment right to decide what speech to host.

Tech companies also warn that the laws would force them to disseminate objectionable and even dangerous content. In an emergency application to block the Texas law from going into effect in May, the trade groups wrote that such content could include “Russia’s propaganda claiming that its invasion of Ukraine is justified, ISIS propaganda claiming that extremism is warranted, neo-Nazi or KKK screeds denying or supporting the Holocaust, and encouraging children to engage in risky or unhealthy behavior like eating disorders,”

The Supreme Court has not yet agreed to hear the cases, but multiple justices have commented on the importance of the issue.

In response to the emergency application in May, Justice Samuel Alito wrote that the case involved “issues of great importance that will plainly merit this Court’s review.” However, he disagreed with the court’s decision to block the law pending review, writing that “whether applicants are likely to succeed under existing law is quite unclear.”

Monday’s request asking Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar to weigh in on the cases allows the court to put off the decision for another few months.

“It is crucial that the Supreme Court ultimately resolve this matter: it would be a dangerous precedent to let government insert itself into the decisions private companies make on what material to publish or disseminate online,” CCIA President Matt Schruers said in a statement. “The First Amendment protects both the right to speak and the right not to be compelled to speak, and we should not underestimate the consequences of giving government control over online speech in a democracy.”

The Supreme Court is still scheduled to hear two other major content moderation cases next month, which will decide whether Google and Twitter can be held liable for terrorist content hosted on their respective platforms.

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Section 230

Google Defends Section 230 in Supreme Court Terror Case

‘Section 230 is critical to enabling the digital sector’s efforts to respond to extremist[s],’ said a tech industry supporter.



Photo of ISIS supporter by HatabKhurasani from Wikipedia

WASHINGTON, January 13, 2023 – The Supreme Court could trigger a cascade of internet-altering effects that will encourage the proliferation of offensive speech and the suppression of speech and create a “litigation minefield” if it decides Google is liable for the results of terrorist attacks by entities publishing on its YouTube platform, the search engine company argued Thursday.

The high court will hear the case of an America family whose daughter Reynaldo Gonzalez was killed in an ISIS terrorist attack in Paris in 2015. The family sued Google under the AntiTerrorism Act for the death, alleging YouTube participated as a publisher of ISIS recruitment videos when it hosted them and its algorithm shared them on the video platform.

But in a brief to the court on Thursday, Google said it is not liable for the content published by third parties on its website according to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, and that deciding otherwise would effectively gut platform protection provision and “upend the internet.”

Denying the provision’s protections for platforms “could have devastating spillover effects,” Google argued in the brief. “Websites like Google and Etsy depend on algorithms to sift through mountains of user-created content and display content likely relevant to each user. If plaintiffs could evade Section 230(c)(1) by targeting how websites sort content or trying to hold users liable for liking or sharing articles, the internet would devolve into a disorganized mess and a litigation minefield.”

It would also “perversely encourage both wide-ranging suppression of speech and the proliferation of more offensive speech,” it added in the brief. “Sites with the resources to take down objectionable content could become beholden to heckler’s vetoes, removing anything anyone found objectionable.

“Other sites, by contrast, could take the see-no-evil approach, disabling all filtering to avoid any inference of constructive knowledge of third-party content,” Google added. “Still other sites could vanish altogether.”

Google rejected the argument that recommendations by its algorithms conveys an “implicit message,” arguing that in such a world, “any organized display [as algorithms do] of content ‘implicitly’ recommends that content and could be actionable.”

The Supreme Court is also hearing a similar case simultaneously in Twitter v. Taamneh.

The Section 230 scrutiny has loomed large since former President Donald Trump was banned from social media platforms for allegedly inciting the Capitol Hill riots in January 2021. Trump and conservatives called for rules limited that protection in light of the suspensions and bans, while the Democrats have not shied away from introducing legislation limited the provision if certain content continued to flourish on those platforms.

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas early last year issued a statement calling for a reexamination of tech platform immunity protections following a Texas Supreme Court decision that said Facebook was shielded from liability in a trafficking case.

Meanwhile, startups and internet associations have argued for the preservation of the provision.

“These cases underscore how important it is that digital services have the resources and the legal certainty to deal with dangerous content online,” Matt Schruers, president of the Computer and Communications Industry Association, said in a statement when the Supreme Court decided in October to hear the Gonzalez case.

“Section 230 is critical to enabling the digital sector’s efforts to respond to extremist and violent rhetoric online,” he added, “and these cases illustrate why it is essential that those efforts continue.”

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