Democrats to target Section 230 in Haugen hearing

Julia Nikhinson

House Democrats are using a hearing Wednesday with the Facebook whistleblower to bolster their calls to scale back legal protections for social media companies over third-party content published on their platforms.  

The push is focused on accusations that tech giants are failing to remove hate speech and misinformation, and their proposals would carve out exceptions for the legal protection. 

The hearing will examine four Democratic proposals to modify Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a provision that provides tech companies a liability shield over content posted on their platforms by third parties.  

Republicans are also interested in targeting the tech companies by reforming the provision, but they have different views on how to do so. They are chiefly focused on unsubstantiated claims of tech giants censoring conservative content. 

Critics warn the partisan split will lead to hours of political theater at the House Energy and Commerce technology subcommittee hearing without moving the goalposts on reform.  

“It all really comes down to Republicans want less content moderation and Democrats want more, and I’m not sure how they resolve that with a 230 bill,” said Nu Wexler, a former spokesperson for Twitter, Facebook and Google who is now a partner at the communications firm Seven Letter.

Evan Greer, director of digital rights group Fight for the Future, said policies governing technology — such as the reforms to Section 230 being discussed this week — could shape the world and future.

“When we’re trying to make those regulations in an environment of extreme partisanship, where lawmakers on both sides seem to see the internet as something they can kind of kick back and forth like a political football, I think that’s profoundly dangerous,” she said.

Although Republicans and Democrats are on polar opposite sides of the debate, they’re unified in support of the Facebook whistleblower, Frances Haugen, speaking out.

Haugen first testified on Capitol Hill in October at a Senate hearing, where she was well received by bipartisan members for her bravery and adept explanations of the inner workings of the platform.

“I think her expertise at really cutting through some of the lies that we hear from the platforms has been really encouraging,” said Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change. 

Haugen will warn lawmakers not to fall into Facebook’s “trap” and “get caught up in a long, drawn out debate over the minutiae of different legislative approaches,” according to a copy of her opening remarks. 

“Rising to meet these challenges won’t be easy. But democracies must do what they have always done when the actions of commerce conflict with the interests of the people and society as a whole — Democracies must step in and make new laws,” she will say. 

Her prepared opening remarks are scant on details about her thoughts on proposals to address Section 230, but during October’s Senate hearing she said the law should be reformed.  

One proposal by top committee Democrats would amend Section 230 to hold platforms accountable for content promoted by their algorithm. Another proposal, led by Reps. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) and Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.), focuses on content with civil rights abuses. 

There are no Republican sponsors on the bills, and the GOP has yet to formally introduce its own. But the minority released a set of draft bills on tech issues including Section 230 reform in July focused on countering alleged anti-conservative bias.

“A conversation about reforming Section 230 is long overdue, and we look forward to having that discussion this week,” Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), the full committee’s ranking member, and technology subcommittee ranking member Bob Latta (R-Ohio) said in a joint statement.  

“Big Tech continues to prioritize the censorship of speech that does not fit the liberal orthodoxy when they should be focused on encouraging robust discussion and removing illegal content,” they added. 

Robinson and James Steyer, founder and CEO of Common Sense Media, the other witnesses appearing on the panel Wednesday with Haugen, also back reforming Section 230 to mitigate concerns posed by harmful content online. 

“The bigger changes, they’re all related,” Steyer said, referring to tech reform proposals. “You cannot look at 230 as a panacea or in a vacuum.”

Adam Kovacevich, president of the tech industry group Chamber of Progress, said Haugen appearing as a witness suggests the hearing will be more of a “political circus focused on Facebook” rather than a “serious discussion” about Section 230. 

“I wouldn’t interpret it as a sign of legislative seriousness. Unfortunately, I think it shows a lack of grappling with the last Section 230 reform,” Kovacevich said, referring to the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, known as SESTA-FOSTA, passed in 2018. 

Chamber of Progress and NetChoice, which both name Facebook, Google and Twitter as corporate partners and members, support leaving Section 230 as it is. 

Kovacevich said the law “does not need reform — it needs a publicist.” He argues Section 230 leads to a “healthier internet” by allowing the kind of content moderation that allows progressive speech and encourages platforms to take action against hate and disinformation. 

Facebook itself, though, has embarked on a campaign in support of reforming Section 230.

Other critics of reforming Section 230 say the changes would help Facebook and other industry giants keep their market dominance. 

“There’s a reason why Facebook is running a national ad campaign in support of weakening Section 230. I do think that they want more guidance on content, but they also realize that weakening 230 is a regulatory cost they can fully absorb,” said Wexler of Seven Letter.  

“The irony [is the] legislators pushing for competition legislation to weaken the big companies are also trying to weaken 230, which would accomplish the opposite,” he added. 

Reform could also lead to unintended consequences and hurt marginalized communities, said Greer of Fight for the Future. For example, advocacy groups criticized SESTA-FOSTA, which aimed to provide exemptions for platforms facilitating sex trafficking, for ultimately hurting sex workers. 

Fight for the Future led more than 70 human rights groups in a January letter to the Biden administration and Congress cautioning against repeal or overbroad changes to the provision. Not a single Democrat acknowledged receipt of the letter, according to the digital rights group. 

Greer said House Democrats should instead use their power to focus on ways to regulate the tech companies through proposals with broader support within the party, and even some from across the aisle such as on privacy and antitrust legislation. 

“I think people will not look kindly on the Democrats if they waste this opportunity, because they’re kind of overfocused on this one specific piece of legislation when there’s kind of clear paths forward on other harm-reduction measures that they’re sort of leaving on the table,” Greer said. 

“If you have one shot to get something done, do you take the fight where you don’t even have your own team in order? Or do you take the fight where you’ve got your own team in order and you’ve got some sympathizers on the other side?” she added.

Tags Anna Eshoo Cathy McMorris Rodgers francis haugen facebook tech policy section 230 democrats target hearing law reform algorithm Tom Malinowski

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