Amending Section 230 Brings Legal Remedy Against Social Media Companies

Section 230 Amendment.Pressure on Social Media Companies

In a Pew Research Survey, 49% of social media users stated that their political discussions are angrier compared with other places people might discuss politics.[1] This heightened emotion is often reflected in extremist and hate speech, lawmakers argue.

Section 230, a law that provides immunity to online platforms such as Facebook, Google, and Twitter, is being litigated in the U.S. House of Representatives. Lawmakers are planning on amending the measure to hold social media sites accountable for their published content. The proposals include everything from limiting liability protections for hate speech and civil rights violations. It also includes setting more explicit content moderation policies, as well as allowing lawsuits to go forward against tech companies that do not regulate child sexual abuse material. Some of these proposals have bipartisan cosponsors. [2]

The text outlined in Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act explicitly states: “No provider or user of any interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider”.[3] Lawsuits targeting Section 230 since the inception of the law in 1996 have not changed its purpose. This is about to change, however.

The Responsibility of Tech Platforms

Lawmakers are arguing that hate speech and misinformation spread on social media have led to terrorist-like circumstances outside of the internet, such as the January 6 riot, they say were emboldened by Donald Trump’s tweets. To prevent such an event from occurring again, they argue online speech should be more regulated and removed if necessary.[4] This would remove Section 230 protections that would otherwise refrain from treating the platforms as publishers of such content.

Conservatives and people such as former president Donald Trump have argued that Section 230 reform should protect conservatives from censorship on online platforms. This has been a theme in conservative and Republican politics, most often dubbed “cancel culture”.

Filing Lawsuits Against Social Media Platforms

Instead of a total repeal of Section 230, these proposals are a revising. Democrats are arguing that a Section 230 amendment must include the Safe Tech Act. Essentially, it would allow tech companies to be held liable for the wrongful death of an individual.[5]

Democratic representatives Tom Malinowski of New Jersey and Anna Eshoo of California have also introduced legislation aptly titled “Protecting Americans from Dangerous Algorithms Act” in an attempt to hold platforms accountable for “harmful, radicalizing” content that leads to real-world violence.[6] The bill is applicable only to tech companies with 50 million plus users. The violence in Kenosha, WI, an example used to promote the bill, was attributed to unmoderated content on Facebook. It would be possible to file a civil suit on behalf of such content.[7]

Families of police officers will find it easier to file wrongful death lawsuits against tech companies. Many of our law enforcement officers face danger themselves in the wake of protests and riots. This is most clearly exemplified in the capitol police officer Brian Sicknick, who of recent memory, died due to the events that unfolded on January 6 in and around the capitol building. It is law enforcement’s duty to protect federal property, and namely, this officer’s death was work-related. The riot was spurred through users planning and communicating through social media sites, which went undeterred. The family of Brian Sicknick, as an example, could file a lawsuit against tech companies that disseminated the information leading up to the attack if the bill is passed in both houses of congress, signed by the president, and is made retroactive.

The proposals set forth would make it less complex for victims of violence coordinated through tech platforms to file suit. Provided that seven out of ten American adults use social media, excluding YouTube, these propositions could have extensive ramifications for the law and consumer.[8]

[1] Rainie, Lee. “Americans’ Complicated Feelings about Social Media in an Era of Privacy Concerns.” Pew Research Center, Pew Research Center, 27 Mar. 2018, www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/03/27/americans-complicated-feelings-about-social-media-in-an-era-of-privacy-concerns/.

[2] Kern, Rebecca. “Internet Firms’ Liability Protection Under Fire. 26 Words and What’s at Stake.” Insurance Journal, Wells Media Group, Inc., 4 Mar. 2021, www.insurancejournal.com/news/national/2021/03/04/603649.htm.

[3] Anonymous. “Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.” Electronic Frontier Foundation, Electronic Frontier Foundation, www.eff.org/issues/cda230.

[4] Kern, Rebecca. “Internet Firms’ Liability Protection Under Fire. 26 Words and What’s at Stake.” Insurance Journal, Wells Media Group, Inc., 4 Mar. 2021, www.insurancejournal.com/news/national/2021/03/04/603649.htm.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Press Release. “REPS. MALINOWSKI AND ESHOO INTRODUCE BILL TO HOLD TECH PLATFORMS LIABLE FOR ALGORITHMIC PROMOTION OF EXTREMISM.” Congressman Tom Malinowski, Congressman Tom Malinowski, 20 Oct. 2020, malinowski.house.gov/media/press-releases/reps-malinowski-and-eshoo-introduce-bill-hold-tech-platforms-liable-algorithmic.

[7] Press Release. “REPS. MALINOWSKI AND ESHOO INTRODUCE BILL TO HOLD TECH PLATFORMS LIABLE FOR ALGORITHMIC PROMOTION OF EXTREMISM.” Congressman Tom Malinowski, Congressman Tom Malinowski, 20 Oct. 2020, malinowski.house.gov/media/press-releases/reps-malinowski-and-eshoo-introduce-bill-hold-tech-platforms-liable-algorithmic.

[8] Rainie, Lee. “Americans’ Complicated Feelings about Social Media in an Era of Privacy Concerns.” Pew Research Center, Pew Research Center, 27 Mar. 2018, www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/03/27/americans-complicated-feelings-about-social-media-in-an-era-of-privacy-concerns/.

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