Section 230: GOP congresswoman urges more free speech on Big Tech platforms

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Republicans and Democrats clashed over Section 230 again this week, with Democrats arguing that Big Tech platforms should be held liable for users that cause harm and Republicans arguing they should be held liable for censoring certain viewpoints.

Members of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology met Wednesday to discuss the 1996 law, which says internet platforms cannot be held liable for content that third-party users post to their respective websites.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., and ranking member of the energy and commerce subcommittee, introduced draft legislation in July that would allow users of Big Tech platforms to sue companies if they think the companies censored speech protected by the First Amendment.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., McMorris Rodgers said Congress needs to hold more hearings on Section 230. (House Energy and Commerce Committee)

"I believe that platforms need to be held accountable on both fronts," McMorris Rodgers told FOX Business in an interview after the hearing. "So what the Republicans are attempting to do [is provide] a narrow solution to Section 230 to protect free speech because we believe it's important. It is vital that we remove the largest tech companies from the existing 230 protections that they hide behind and put them under their own set of rules … so that small businesses and startups will not be impacted."

WHAT IS SECTION 230?

Wednesday's hearing included testimony from three witnesses across the political spectrum, including Facebook whistleblowers Frances Haugen and Kara Frederick; James Steyer, founder and CEO of internet safety organization Common Sense Media; and Rashad Robinson, president of racial justice group Color of Change.

Republicans are proposing changes to 230 that would ensure Big Tech companies be held "more responsible for content that they choose to amplify, promote or suggest" and "give conservatives a means to challenge Big Tech censorship decisions."

Republicans are proposing changes to 230 that would ensure Big Tech companies be held “more responsible for content that they choose to amplify, promote or suggest” and give conservatives a means to challenge Big Tech censorship decisions. (iStock)

Republicans pressed Haugen — an apolitical whistleblower and former Facebook product manager who has made headlines in recent months for testifying that Facebook prioritizes profit over attempts to stop public harm — on what they alleged to be Facebook's censorship of conservative users. McMorris Rodgers demanded a yes or no answer, which Haugen did not give.

"I think there are better solutions than censorship that we should be using," Haugen told the congresswoman.

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Meanwhile, Frederick called Big Tech "the enemy of the people" for moderating certain kinds of political content, saying "misinformation" and "disinformation" are "being conflated into a catch-all for information that the left doesn't like."

Democrats argue that legislation allowing users to sue platforms for censorship could cause real-world harm if users are given free rein to say what they please online without strict moderation.

Frances Haugen during a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing. (CSPAN)

Other Committee Republicans have introduced draft legislation to hold Big Tech companies responsible for illicit material, such as material related to human or drug trafficking, and cyberbullying, among other things, on their platforms.

Committee Democrats have proposed legislation to change Section 230 that would likely result in more content moderation. The Justice Against Malicious Algorithms Act would allow users to sue companies if users on their platforms cause real-life physical or "severe emotional injury." 

WHAT IF SECTION 230 IS REVOKED?

"Facebook has nearly 3 billion users. That is more followers than Christianity," Robinson said. "And for us to say that we shouldn't be able to hold them accountable … is an outrageous statement. So yes, there will be more lawsuits. There will be more accountability. But that means that [there] will hopefully be changes to the structures and the way that they do business."

Republicans argue that such legislation presents a slippery slope to companies infringing on free speech, especially since the legislation does not explicitly define "severe emotional injury."

McMorris Rodgers said the legislation would put Big Tech companies "on the hook for any content that amplifies or recommends [content] that could contribute to quote severe emotional injury of a person, but they don't define it."

"And so then you would still have the companies deciding what content they're going to leave up that may offend someone or fight that in court or censor that content. I think we know how Big Tech is going to approach that. They'll continue to silence the content that doesn't align with their liberal ideology," she said.

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Some politicians have expressed interest in totally revoking Section 230, but tech experts say the law is necessary for both safety and free speech, and that if it were to be revoked or drastically changed, the internet as we know it may become more limited. Still, politicians are split on how exactly to modernize the internet law older than Netflix.

McMorris Rodgers believes Congress needs to hold more hearings on the topic.

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