Tech Corporations Shift Their Posture on a Authorized Protect, Cautious of Being Left Behind
WASHINGTON – For more than two decades, the tech industry has had a coherent message to Congress about a law protecting internet platforms from lawsuits: don’t touch it.
But now that tech companies are facing increasing attacks from political leaders, more of them are saying otherwise: let’s work something out.
Numerous industry leaders have stated in the past few weeks that they are open to changes in the law, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Mark Zuckerberg, the executive director of Facebook, said the law should be updated and the executive director of Twitter has suggested possible “additions”. Google has recognized “legitimate questions” about the law. On Tuesday, a group of smaller businesses – including Snap, Reddit and Tripadvisor – said they were also open to reform.
The changing rhetoric comes from the fact that both Republicans and Democrats have threatened to fundamentally change or completely remove the legal protective shield. The law, passed in 1996, limits the legal exposure of companies to words, photos and videos posted by users of their websites.
President Trump has threatened to veto a law to fund critical defense measures because it did not include lifting of protection. President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. has called for the shield to be “revoked.” The legislature of both parties has proposed substantial cuts.
So far, the industry has not been about repealing or revising the law. The rhetoric is more about being open to change on the margins while defending the core legal protection. But their new stance could change the dynamics of an increasingly heated debate about how to deal with hate speech, extremist content and child pornography on the Internet.
“Many of these companies understand that change is happening one way or another,” said Mary Anne Franks, a professor in the law school at the University of Miami, who has criticized aspects of legal protection. “And one of the best ways to keep your interests centered is to acknowledge that change is coming and try to shape it.”
The attacks on Section 230 are part of a larger government effort to contain the tech giants. Two months ago, the Justice Department and a group of states accused Google of maintaining an illegal monopoly on online searches. Last week, the Federal Trade Commission and 40 states filed their own antitrust lawsuits against Facebook, which could ultimately lead to the company’s liquidation.
Facebook, which has been criticized by liberals for spreading misinformation and by conservatives claiming the company is shutting down too much right-wing content, was the most vocal about the need for a change in the law.
During his October appearance before a Senate Trade Committee hearing, Mr. Zuckerberg said that Congress “should update the law to ensure that it works as intended”.
He suggested measures that would make it clearer to the public how content is moderated online. He also suggested that lawmakers could make it impossible for companies to use Section 230 safeguards in legal proceedings when websites “intentionally facilitate illegal activity”.
Like others in Silicon Valley, the company has long vigorously opposed any talk of changing the law. Then, in 2017, Facebook and one of its lobby groups backed a bill that removed protection from websites that knowingly facilitated sex trafficking, a decision that frustrated some smaller businesses.
However, until the last few months, the company resisted other changes in the law.
The new public stance from Facebook and other tech companies is skeptical.
Economy & Economy
Dec. 15, 2020 at 7:19 am ET
“It’s a rhetorical shift, but in their action they continue to oppose real reform,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat who has sponsored several laws to limit the reach of legal protection. “They are deeply opposed to real change.” Mr Blumenthal said he was open to arguments that changes should not disproportionately harm small websites.
Tech companies can benefit from the political realities of the law debate. Many Republicans believe it should be changed to force the platforms to sustain more posts, from conservative publishers and personalities. Many Democrats believe that by changing the law, they can encourage platforms to eradicate more cases of drug sales, exploitative content, and discriminatory advertising. A compromise has remained elusive.
Some smaller tech companies have recognized the possibility that lawmakers could change Section 230, and companies are increasingly targeting their lobbying to shape any changes. In part, they fear that Facebook and other large corporations might support a set of rules that only the largest corporations the resources can follow.
Twitter’s executive director, Jack Dorsey, appeared with Mr. Zuckerberg in October and suggested ideas that could be “extensions” to Section 230. He identified three possible areas for change: making the platforms’ moderation processes more transparent and developing clear ways for users to challenge their decisions and giving users more choices about the algorithms used to sort their content.
“We believe the basics of online language covered in Section 230 will remain. However, we should build on Section 230 to reflect the realities of the modern digital age, ”Lauren Culbertson, public policy director for Twitter in the US, said in a statement. She said that inadvertent support from dominant companies “should be avoided at all costs”.
Executives at Tripadvisor, one of the smaller companies that will announce Tuesday that they are open to possible changes, said they understood they needed to work with lawmakers to ensure adjustments to the law reflect their concerns.
“We’ve definitely gotten involved in other ways,” said Caitlin Brosseau, senior director of government affairs and public order for the company. “But I think we see this as an important element of the overall engagement, education and advocacy that will be needed to get a good result, if there is to be one.”
Lobbying for the smaller business group called Internet Works is led by Josh Ackil, a partner in Franklin Square Group, a company that has long specialized in technology issues. The group has already met privately with congressional staff to discuss content moderation issues, Ackil said.
“This coalition brings new voices and different perspectives to the current Section 230 debate in Washington, which too often focuses on the largest Internet platforms,” he said in a statement. The group plans to explain to policy makers how companies view the core protection of Section 230 as essential to their business.
Ms. Brosseau of Tripadvisor said that part of her work would be to ensure that when changes are made, she does not “target a few entities or actors”.
“While you may have gone in before and it was only accepted Maybe that you were there to oppose the action, ”she said.