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Section 230

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

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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.

Section 230

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.

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Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-California

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

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Section 230

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.

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Rep. Ken Buck, R-Colo., speaking on the floor of the House

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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Section 230

Judge Rules Exemption Exists in Section 230 for Twitter FOSTA Case

Latest lawsuit illustrates the increasing fragility of Section 230 legal protections.

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Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey.

August 24, 2021—A California court has allowed a lawsuit to commence against Twitter from two victims of sexual trafficking, who allege the social media company initially refused to remove content that exploited the underaged plaintiffs – and then went viral.

The anonymous plaintiffs allege that they were manipulated into making pornographic videos of themselves through another social media app, Snapchat, after which the videos were posted on Twitter. When the plaintiffs asked Twitter to take down the posts, it refused, and it was only after the Department of Homeland Security got involved that the social media company complied.

At issue in the case is whether Twitter had any obligation to remove the content at least “immediately” under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which provides legal liability protections for the content the platforms’ users post.

Court’s finding

The court ruled Thursday that the case should proceed after finding that Twitter knowingly knew such content was on the site, had to have known it was sex trafficking, and refused to do something about it immediately.

“The Court finds that these allegations are sufficient to allege an ongoing pattern of conduct amounting to a tacit agreement with the perpetrators in this case to allow them to post videos and photographs it knew or should have known were related to sex trafficking without blocking their accounts or the Videos,” the decision read.

“In sum, the Court finds that Plaintiffs have stated a claim for civil liability under the [Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act] on the basis of beneficiary liability and that the claim falls within the exemption to Section 230 immunity created by FOSTA.”

The Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act and the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act that became the package law SESTA-FOSTA was passed in 2018 and amended immunity claims under Section 230 to exclude enforcement of federal or state sex trafficking laws from intermediary protections.

The court dismissed other claims against the company made by the plaintiffs, but met the relatively low bar to move the case forward.

The arguments

The plaintiffs allege that Twitter violated the TVPRA because it allegedly knew about the videos, benefitted from them and did nothing to address the problem before it went viral.

Twitter argued that FOSTA, as applied to the CDA, only narrowly applies to websites that are “knowingly assisting and profiting from reprehensible crimes;” the plaintiffs allegedly fail to show that the company “affirmatively participated” in such crimes; and the company cannot be held liable “simply because it did not take the videos down immediately.”

Experts asserted companies may hesitate to bring Section 230 defense in court

The case is yet another instance of U.S. courts increasingly poking holes in arguments brought by technology companies that suggests they cannot be liable for content on their platforms, per Section 230, which is currently the subject of hot debate in Washington about whether to reform it or completely abolish it.

A number of state judges have ruled against Amazon, for example, and its Section 230 defense in a number of case-specific instances in Texas and California. Experts on a panel in May said if courts keep ruling against the defense, there may be a deluge of lawsuits to come against companies.

And last month, citing some of these cases, lawyers argued that big tech companies may begin to shy away from bringing the 230 defense to court in fear of awakening lawmakers to changing legal views on the provision that could ignite its reform.

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