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In latest tech hearing, Congress lumbers toward potentially disastrous change to Section 230

Republicans want to punish Big Tech companies for removing content. Democrats would like to penalize Big Tech companies for not removing enough content.It may seem like Congress is unified in their dislike for platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube. Both Republicans and Democrats voice their displeasure for these companies, right to its executives' faces in hearing after hearing.And yet, Republicans and Democrats could not be further from agreeing on the issue. This dynamic was once again on display at the latest Big Tech hearing.On Wednesday, the House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology held a hearing titled "Holding Big Tech...

Republicans want to punish Big Tech companies for removing content. Democrats would like to penalize Big Tech companies for not removing enough content.

It may seem like Congress is unified in their dislike for platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube. Both Republicans and Democrats voice their displeasure for these companies, right to its executives’ faces in hearing after hearing.

And yet, Republicans and Democrats could not be further from agreeing on the issue. This dynamic was once again on display at the latest Big Tech hearing.

On Wednesday, the House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology held a hearing titled “Holding Big Tech Accountable: Targeted Reforms to Tech’s Legal Immunity.”

The hearing’s focus was on Section 230, a very important part of the United States Communications Decency Act which basically provides tech companies protection from legal liability due to what users post on their platforms.

Democrats and Republicans seek to change Section 230, albeit for their own specific reasons. However, the urgency of the situation has heightened in the weeks and months since Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen shared internal documents showing just how harmful the social network is to young people, and that the company knows it. 

Congress has proposed multiple pieces of legislation such as H.R. 2154, the “Protecting Americans from Dangerous Algorithms Act,” H.R. 5596, the “Justice Against Malicious Algorithms Act of 2021,” and H.R. 3421, the “Safeguarding Against Fraud, Exploitation, Threats, Extremism, and Consumer Harms Act” or the “SAFE TECH Act.” 

However, experts have issues with what’s been proposed by Congress.

As the digital rights nonprofit Fight for the Future and others have pointed out, the legislation as its currently proposed would have the same stunning effects on a worryingly wide range of sites.

The future of platforms smaller than the Big Tech companies, ranging from well-known websites like Wikipedia to your favorite blogger, would be in peril. Broadly, the new legislation punishes sites for having recommendation software that algorithmically serves content that injures users emotionally — though exactly what qualifies as emotional injury is vague.

Without legal liability protections that Section 230 provides, many smaller platforms would most likely need to fundamentally change or outright shutdown after this change. Companies like Facebook, on the other hand, would likely be able to weather the storm of incoming lawsuits.

These bills are, according to Evan Greer of Fight for The Future, “misguided pieces of legislation that would alter Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a foundational law for online human rights and free expression.”

Fight for the Future and other critics have long concentrated on the fact that marginalized groups who were most affected by the last change to Section 230, have been completely shut out of this very conversation.

In 2018, then-President Trump signed a bill, FOSTA-CESTA, that carved out an exception in Section 230 when it came to content relating to prostitution or consensual sex work. The fallout from the new law greatly hurt sex workers, educators, and others in the space as platforms like Instagram and TikTok removed a huge amount of sexual content.

The voices of the groups with these concerns were missing from the conversation today, although Facebook Whistleblower Frances Haugen, who was one of the witnesses at the hearing, did speak out on their behalf.

“Congress has instituted carve outs of Section 230 in recent years,” Haugen said in her testimony. “I encourage you to talk to human rights advocates who can help provide context on how the last reform of 230 had dramatic impacts on the safety of some of the most vulnerable people in our society but has been rarely used for its original purpose.”

Unfortunately, any chance for constructive dialogue at these hearings is usually thrown out the window as soon as Congresspeople get to their partisan pet issues. This hearing saw the usual diversion into a discussion about TikTok and China. One of the invited witnesses, Kara Frederick of the Heritage Foundation – a former Facebook employee – spent her time listing various conservative personalities who’d been suspended or banned from online platforms for breaking its respective site policies.

Maybe, sometime in the future, Congress will be ready to enact meaningful change that makes sure Big Tech conglomerates are held accountable while at the same time preserving the spirit of the internet for smaller platforms and users alike.

For now though, we’re just going to get a lot more of these hearings. And not much else.

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