Democrats introduce bill to hold platforms accountable for misinformation during health crises

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.)
Greg Nash

Democratic Sens. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) and Ben Ray Luján (N.M.) introduced a bill Thursday that aims to hold tech companies accountable for spreading health misinformation as the federal government continues to push for Americans to get COVID-19 vaccines. 

The bill would create an exception to a part of a controversial bill, known as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, that provides tech companies a legal liability shield over content posted by third parties. The proposal would create an exception for platforms that have algorithms that promote health misinformation related to an existing public health emergency.

“The coronavirus pandemic has shown us how lethal misinformation can be and it is our responsibility to take action,” Klobuchar said in a statement. 

The bill is not Klobuchar’s first proposal that aims to reform Section 230. Earlier this year she introduced a bill that would remove some of the protections provided to platforms by allowing users who face cyberstalking, targeted harassment and discrimination to seek legal action against the platforms. 

The new proposal, dubbed the Health Misinformation Act, would also direct the Department of Health and Human Services to issue guidelines as to what constitutes health misinformation. 

The proposal will likely face a rocky path forward, with lawmakers largely divided along party lines over how to reform Section 230. 

It may also be difficult for users even if the shield were lifted in such cases to successfully sue platforms over health misinformation. This is not illegal, as opposed to reform measures that would allow for cases against the tech companies over posts including child pornography or defamatory statements. 

But the bill could still send an important signal to the tech giants, according to Paul Barrett, the deputy director of the NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights.

“The potential benefit of the Klobuchar-Lujan bill is not that it would lead to a flood of litigation. It would still be very difficult to win a lawsuit against Facebook or Twitter. Instead, the potential benefit would be the unmistakable signal the law would send that the social media platforms must stop amplifying public health misinformation,” Barrett said in a statement.

The bill also indicates Democrats are not backing down from pressing tech companies to address COVID-19 misinformation. 

“As COVID-19 cases rise among the unvaccinated, so has the amount of misinformation surrounding vaccines on social media. Lives are at stake,” Luján said in a statement. 

The push comes just a week after the surgeon general released an advisory calling the spread of coronavirus misinformation an “urgent threat.” The advisory in part urged social media platforms to take greater action to combat the spread of false information about the virus and vaccines. 

Following the advisory, President Biden got into a heated back-and-forth with Facebook after the president accused the platform of “killing people.” He later walked back the comments but urged the platforms to still take action to combat misinformation. 

Facebook has defended its policies put in place to combat the spread of coronavirus misinformation, despite urging for more action from Democrats and advocacy groups. 

The social media giant has boasted that it has connected “more than 2 billion people” with authoritative information about COVID-19 and vaccines, and that more than 3.3 million Americans have used its vaccine finder tool.

The CEO of the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), which released a report earlier this year about the spread of anti-vaccine misinformation, cheered the Democrats’ bill.

“This bill gives a pathway to restitution for harm caused by a failure to act on clear, extraordinary national public health threats such as Covid. Given platforms already claim they are doing this, they shouldn’t fear this legislation. Any trepidation they feel is entirely because of their failure to live up to the standards and expectations they claim to adhere to,” CCDH CEO Imran Ahmed said in a statement.

But the CEO of tech industry group Chamber of Progress, which lists Facebook, Twitter and Google among its corporate partners, said Democrats “would regret” making such reform if a Republican administration took office.

“We all want less misinformation online, but this approach would turn future Republican presidents into the speech police,” Chamber of Progress CEO Adam Kovacevich said in a statement.

“When President Ron DeSantis’ HHS Secretary deems pro-choice and transgender speech ‘misinformation,’ Democrats would regret this,” Kovacevich added, referring to the Florida governor who is seen as a potential GOP presidential candidate in the next election.

Updated at 4:05 p.m.

Tags Amy Klobuchar COVID-19 misinformation Facebook Joe Biden Ron DeSantis
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