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GOP senators unveil new bill to update tech liability protections

GOP senators unveil new bill to update tech liability protections
© Greg Nash

Republican Sens. Roger WickerRoger Frederick WickerSenators vet Buttigieg to run Transportation Department Wall Street Journal: GOP Electoral College 'stunt' will hurt US, Republican Party Bipartisan group of senators: The election is over MORE (Miss.), Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamTrump selects South Carolina lawyer for impeachment trial Democrats formally elect Harrison as new DNC chair McConnell proposes postponing impeachment trial until February MORE (S.C.) and Marsha BlackburnMarsha BlackburnThe Hill's Morning Report - Biden takes office, calls for end to 'uncivil war' Senate confirms Biden's intel chief, giving him first Cabinet official Colbert asks Republicans 'have you had enough?' in live show after Capitol violence MORE (Tenn.) introduced legislation Tuesday aimed at modifying legal protections for online platforms.

The Online Freedom and Viewpoint Diversity Act would modify Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act by conditioning the protection on whether content decisions are "objectively reasonable," while also limiting the things platforms can act on.

Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which has come under increased scrutiny since President Trump targeted it in an executive order in May, gives internet companies immunity from lawsuits for content posted on their sites by third parties and allows them to make "good faith" efforts to moderate content.

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The law is considered foundational for online companies, and the threat of having it revoked has increasingly been proposed as a cudgel to compel platforms to make changes by lawmakers, especially ones on the right.

This new proposal would only extend the protection to companies that restrict access to content where it has the "reasonable belief" it falls into one of the specified categories in the 1996 act.

Section 230's original phrasing gives platforms wide latitude to pursue content moderation targeted at "obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable" content.

The bill introduced Tuesday would strike the "otherwise objectionable" phrase — which has allowed platforms to take down a wide range of dangerous content — and replace it with ‘‘promoting self-harm, promoting terrorism, or un-lawful."

The bill would also change the definition of "information content provider" to include any instances of editorializing or modifying content created by another person or entity beyond changes to appearance.

That change would seem to suggest that platforms that do things like fact-check content or strike parts of it would no longer get Section 230 protections, effectively neutering the sort of tough content moderation that experts say is crucial to limiting the spread of misinformation online.

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Tuesday's bill adds to a pile of legislation in the Senate on Section 230.

The Senate Judiciary Committee advanced one such bill earlier this month that would tie Section 230 protections to efforts to combat child sexual abuse material.

The Eliminating Abusive and Rampant Neglect of Interactive Technologies Act would allow federal and state claims against online companies that host child exploitation content.

Critics say the legislation would do little to stop child sex abuse material online and also endanger encryption, which makes it impossible for companies or governments to access private communications between devices.

The bipartisan Platform Accountability and Consumer Transparency Act, which would require greater transparency around platforms’ decisions to moderate their users’ content, remains in committee.

Trump signed an executive order in May that, among other things, directs an agency within the Commerce Department to file a petition with the Federal Communications Commission to clarify the scope of Section 230.

That subagency, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, filed that petition earlier this year and recently closed the open comment period.

The executive order was signed just days after Twitter first appended a fact-checking label to one of Trump's tweets, which falsely claimed mail-in voting would lead to a rigged election.