It’s another day and another hearing about Big Tech on Capitol Hill. This latest hearing is all about Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a decades-old law that offers websites protection against being held liable for what their users post.
The law exempts websites such as Facebook, Twitter, and thousands of others from being responsible for materials published by third-party users on those sites—no matter how harmful the content is. In short, the law basically says that a website is not a traditional publisher, like a magazine or newspaper, which themselves can be held legally liable for the content they publish. Section 230 is often credited as being one of the main reasons the free and open web flourished in the late ’90s—particularly because websites didn’t have to worry about user-created content landing them in trouble.
But almost 25 years after the law was passed, the web is a different place, and government on both sides of the aisle has its own grievances with the law as it relates to the Big Tech giants of the 21st century—namely Facebook, Google, and Twitter. Democrats don’t like the law because they say it lets Big Tech off the hook for hate speech published on their platforms. Republicans don’t like the law because it allows websites to self-regulate the content on their sites, and the Republicans say that self-regulation, such as removing posts, is biased against conservative content creators.
And the hearing today, to be held by the Senate Commerce Committee, will literally examine whether Section 230 has “outlived its usefulness in today’s digital age.” Even the hearing’s name doesn’t bode well: “Does Section 230’s Sweeping Immunity Enable Big Tech Bad Behavior?” The official listing of the hearing describes its objective as such:
The hearing will examine whether Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act has outlived its usefulness in today’s digital age. It will also examine legislative proposals to modernize the decades-old law, increase transparency and accountability among big technology companies for their content moderation practices, and explore the impact of large ad-tech platforms on local journalism and consumer privacy. The hearing will provide an opportunity to discuss the unintended consequences of Section 230’s liability shield and how best to preserve the internet as a forum for open discourse.
Showing up for the hearing (all via teleconference) will be Twitter’s Jack Dorsey, Google’s Sundar Pichai, and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. MarketWatch reports that Dorsey is expected to fiercely argue in Section 230’s favor, while Zuckerberg and Pichai may be more open to potential change. All three of their companies have previewed remarks by the CEOs. They include:
- Mark Zuckerberg: “Section 230 made it possible for every major internet service to be built and ensured important values like free expression and openness were part of how platforms operate. Changing it is a significant decision. However, I believe Congress should update the law to make sure it’s working as intended.”
- Jack Dorsey: “We should also be mindful that undermining Section 230 will result in far more removal of online speech and impose severe limitations on our collective ability to address harmful content and protect people online.”
- Sundar Pichai: “[Lawmakers need to] be very thoughtful about any changes to Section 230 and to be very aware of the consequences those changes might have on businesses and consumers . . . Of course, our ability to provide access to a wide range of information is only possible because of existing legal frameworks, like Section 230.”
The hearing will take place today, Wednesday, October 28, 2020, at 10 a.m. ET. It will be live-streamed on the SCC’s website here. You can also view the hearing in the PBS NewsHour YouTube embed below.