Tech’s legal shield draws substantive scrutiny.

November 17, 2020 

A law that has legally shielded online platforms — Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act — has long been mentioned by lawmakers as a potential target for reform.

President Trump signed an executive order in May to curtail the law. And the legal shield, which largely protects tech companies from the liability for what their users post, has been the topic of other congressional hearings.

Yet when it came down to it, the debate on Section 230 has resulted in minimal concrete discussions. At a hearing last month with chief executives of the social media companies, there was little substantive debate and few suggestions about how to reform the law.

Not on Tuesday. At the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing with Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Jack Dorsey of Twitter, lawmakers approached Section 230 differently out of the gate. They began with a bipartisan call to change the “golden goose” legal shield, with a substantive focus on legislation that will probably take center stage in the next Congress.

Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina and the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, opened the hearing taking direct aim at the legal shield.

“We have to find a way when Twitter and Facebook make a decision about what’s reliable and what’s not, what to keep up and what to keep down, that there is transparency in the system,” Mr. Graham said. “Section 230 has to be changed because we can’t get there from here without change.”

Republicans have pointed to the law as a crutch for online platforms to censor conservative content, claims that are not founded. Democrats have agreed that the law needs reform, but they have taken the opposite position on why. Democrats have said Section 230 has caused disinformation and hate to flourish on the social media sites.

“Change is going to come. No question. And I plan to bring aggressive reform to 230,” Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat of Connecticut, said in opening remarks.

Mr. Blumenthal was a leading proponent of the first reform to Section 230 in 2018, which made the platforms liable for knowingly hosting content on sex trafficking.

But he was careful to distance himself from Republicans’ worries of censorship.

“But I am not, and nor should we be in this committee, interested in being a member of the speech police,” Mr. Blumenthal said.

Mr. Zuckerberg and Mr. Dorsey said they would be open to some reforms to the law. Mr. Zuckerberg added that he could see reform that required more transparency from the companies. Neither executive elaborated, but Mr. Dorsey’s Twitter account posted support for reforms on transparency, the ability to appeal decisions on moderation, and users having choice over the algorithms that dictate what content appears before users.

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