US Senate Proposes Limits On Tech Giants’ Immunity

Three Democrats in the US Senate have introduced a bill that would limit the legal protections in US law that shield internet companies from liability over content posted by their users.

The bill is aimed at making platforms more accountable for “enabling cyber-stalking, targeted harassment, and discrimination on their platforms”, senators Mark Warner, Mazie Hirono and Amy Klobuchar said in a statement.

It comes as the UK, the EU and other governments are also seeking tighter controls on large social media platforms.

The moves have gained urgency following the 6 January riots that breached the security of the US Capitol building in Washington, D.C., as lawmakers say they want to bring tech companies to task for their part in spreading disinformation ahead of the deadly incident.

‘Sweeping immunity’

“A law meant to encourage service providers to develop tools and policies to support effective moderation has instead conferred sweeping immunity on online providers even when they do nothing to address foreseeable, obvious and repeated misuse of their products and services to cause harm,” Warner said in a statement.

Republican lawmakers have previously pushed efforts to scrap the law, enshrined in Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996.

Their arguments have focused on alleged bias, and gained steam after some platforms began labelling or blocking posts by former Republican president Donald Trump.

Twitter and Facebook first labelled Trump’s posts alleging election fraud over misinformation rules, and after the Capitol riot blocked Trump’s accounts, citing the risk of inciting further violence.

The chief executives of Google, Twitter and Facebook have said the law is necessary to protect free expression on the internet, but have appeared open to suggestions the law could undergo moderate changes.

Ad liability

The new bill would also remove protections from ads and other paid content, while clarifying that the protections do not impair the enforcement of civil rights legislation or bar wrongful-death actions.

Such provisions would open tech giants up to a greater risk of lawsuits, while targeting a principal source of revenues.

“We need to be asking more from big tech companies, not less,” Klobuchar said in a statement.

“How they operate has a real-life effect on the safety and civil rights of Americans and people around the world, as well as our democracy.

“Holding these platforms accountable for ads and content that can lead to real-world harm is critical, and this legislation will do just that.”

Several other proposals are also circulating in the US Senate to limit Section 230, including one from two Republicans, one from a Democratic and a bipartisan bill.

The EU’s proposed Digital Services Act, unveiled in December, would similarly seek to place tighter controls on the biggest tech platforms.

Matthew Broersma

Matt Broersma is a long standing tech freelance, who has worked for Ziff-Davis, ZDnet and other leading publications

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