Democrats Seek to Make Big Tech More Accountable in Section 230 Reform Bill

February 6, 2021 Updated: February 7, 2021

Democrat lawmakers have introduced a bill to reform Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, seeking to make big tech companies more accountable and force them to police their content more stringently.

Sens. Mark Warner (D-Va.), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) on Feb. 5 introduced the Safeguarding Against Fraud, Exploitation, Threats, Extremism and Consumer Harms (SAFE TECH) Act to reform Section 230 and “allow social media companies to be held accountable for enabling cyber-stalking, targeted harassment, and discrimination on their platforms.”

The Democrats’ proposal creates a series of carve-outs to Section 230 protections, including by making the liability shield inapplicable to ads or other paid content, to instances where content and services delivered via the platforms are discriminatory, “likely to cause irreparable harm,” “may have directly contributed to a loss of life,” or where they “directly enable harmful activity.”

Warner said in a statement that “Section 230 has provided a ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card to the largest platform companies even as their sites are used by scam artists, harassers, and violent extremists to cause damage and injury.”

Section 230, which was passed in 1996 to help online platforms develop without fear of litigation over user-generated content, shields them from liability for content posted by users while giving them the leeway to moderate it if they consider it harmful by, in turn, protecting them from lawsuits over moderation.

The law has come under fire from both sides of the aisle, with Democrats generally calling for tighter policing of content, seeking to curb “hate speech,” harassment, and calls for violence, while Republicans and conservatives more broadly have taken aim at the liability shields for enabling what they say is the suppression of conservative voices and stifling of free speech.

At a recent hearing on domestic terrorism, House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) warned tech companies to police content more tightly or face more stringent government intervention.

“It’s obvious that [Section] 230 we’ll look at,” Thompson said. “If the companies don’t assume the interest in policing their own platforms, then you leave government no choice.”

Twitter and Facebook’s decision to ban former President Donald Trump from their platforms in the final days of his presidency following the Jan. 6 Capitol breach drew Republican criticism for discrimination and suppression of online speech.

Donald Trump greets the crowd
Then-President Donald Trump greets the crowd at the “Stop The Steal” rally in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021. (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

Days after Trump was banned from the platforms, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said he was “more determined” to rollback liability protections for big tech companies.

“Twitter may ban me for this but I willingly accept that fate: Your decision to permanently ban President Trump is a serious mistake,” Graham said in a series of posts on Twitter. “The Ayatollah can tweet, but Trump can’t. Says a lot about the people who run Twitter.

“I’m more determined than ever to strip Section 230 protections from Big Tech (Twitter) that let them be immune from lawsuits.”

In the days following, freshman Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.) announced that he’s co-sponsoring a bill to amend Section 230 to ensure social media platforms uphold U.S. consumers’ right to free speech.

“Social media is our generation’s public forum. It ought to be subject to the same protections provided to all public forums,” Cawthorn stated on his website. “I am calling for First Amendment protections to be applied to this New Town Square.

“Censorship of elected officials by unelected elites is UNAMERICAN!”

But while the Democrat co-sponsors of the SAFE TECH Act insist their bill does not stifle free speech, Fight for the Future Director Evan Greer told TechCrunch: “Unfortunately this bill, as written, would have enormous unintended consequences for human rights and freedom of expression.

“It creates a huge carveout in Section 230 that impacts not only advertising but essentially all paid services, such as web hosting and [content delivery networks], as well as small services like Patreon, Bandcamp, and Etsy.”

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who was one of Section 230’s original authors, told TechCrunch that while the new bill is well-intentioned, it would curb free speech.

“Unfortunately, as written, it would devastate every part of the open internet, and cause massive collateral damage to online speech,” Wyden told the outlet.

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