The same day a House committee held a hearing on social media platforms' role in promoting extremism and misinformation, a group of digital rights experts issued fresh warnings against gutting Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act as a response to that problem.
The cautions were delivered Thursday at a virtual press conference hosted by Fight for the Future that explained why "blowing up Section 230" could end up amplifying the already massive power of large firms while hurting smaller platforms and marginalized voices.
Section 230, which says that "no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider," is seen by open internet defenders as pivotal for protecting freedom of expression and innovation online.
As Reuters reported:
Some lawmakers are calling for Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which shields online platforms from liability over user content, to be scrapped or rejigged. There are several pieces of legislation from Democrats to reform Section 230 that are doing the rounds in Congress, though progress has been slow. Several Republican lawmakers have also been pushing separately to scrap the law entirely.
The digital event featured experts including Kate Ruane, a senior legislative counsel with the ACLU, and Jennifer Brody, U.S. advocacy manager at Access Now.
"It's unclear to me what Section 230 changes to address disinformation will actually do to address the problems," said Ruane. She warned that it could lead to deployment of "ever stricter censorship regimes, which we know disproportionately silence people of color, the LGBTQ community, Muslims, other marginalized groups, and people who express dissenting views."
Instead, Ruane said, approaches like "meaningful privacy restrictions" should be pursued.
"If we limit the data these companies can collect and then empower users to limit the ways that companies can use that data," she explained, "it will be harder and harder for disinformation campaigns to target people in the first place."
Video of the live-streamed conference can be viewed in full below:
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Fight for the Future director Evan Greer, responding to testimony from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg—who, along with Google CEO Sundar Pichai and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, addressed the House Energy and Commerce Committee Thursday—said Zuckerberg's support for reforming 230 was not surprising.
"Of course Facebook wants to see changes to Section 230. Because they know it will simply serve to solidify their monopoly power and crush competition from smaller and more decentralized platforms," said Greer.
"Facebook can afford the armies of lawyers and lobbyists that will be needed to navigate a world where Section 230 is gutted or weakened," she added, "And they've shown repeatedly that they don't care about the impact that Section 230 changes could have on the human rights or freedom of expression of marginalized people—they are happy to sanitize your news feed and suppress content en masse in order to avoid liability or respond to public criticism."
Greer urged lawmakers to "take actual steps to address the harms of Big Tech, like passing strong federal data privacy legislation, enforcing antitrust laws, and targeting harmful business practices like microtargeting and nontransparent algorithmic manipulation."
"We can't talk about disinformation without talking about algorithmic amplification... we need algorithmic transparency to address disinformation." - @BrodyJab of @AccessNow #Protect230 #Section230— Fight for the Future (@fightfortheftr) March 25, 2021
Tune in to the press conference: https://t.co/OjLVzJr4JI pic.twitter.com/Pu3aWGXzYa
House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), in his opening remarks at the hearing, lashed out at the technology CEOs.
"You have failed to meaningfully change after your platforms played a role in fomenting insurrection, in abetting the spread of Covid-19, and trampling Americans civil rights," said Pallone. "Your business model itself has become the problem."
"The time for self-regulation is over. It is time we legislate to hold you accountable," he said.
In a letter to lawmakers in January, digital rights defenders including Fight for the Future warned against making "uncareful" reforms to Section 230.
Repealing the law, the group wrote, "would make it more difficult for web platforms to combat the type of dangerous rhetoric that led to the attack on the Capitol," and "certain carve-outs to the law could threaten human rights and silence movements for social and racial justice that are needed now more than ever."