Bulletins

House Democrats' Sec. 230 bill takes aim at algorithms

Leaders of the committee that oversees tech policy don't want the controversial liability shield to protect Big Tech when companies knowingly push content that causes real-world harm.

The U.S. Capitol dome lit up at night.

Democratic lawmakers want big social media companies to take more responsibility for the content their algorithms recommend.

Photo: Darren Halstead/Unsplash

Top House Democrats unveiled a bill Thursday that would force big online companies like Facebook and Twitter to face liability if the algorithms that shape their sites push content that drives harm in the real world.


Rep. Frank Pallone, who chairs the House Energy & Commerce Committee, is spearheading this proposal to change Sec. 230. Online services value the legal provision, which protects them from facing legal liability over the content of user posts, and say it protects free speech while allowing them to clean up the worst content. Yet Democratic lawmakers increasingly say the law gives social media companies and other websites too little incentive to police harmful posts.

The bill from Pallone and the chairs of three of his panel's subcommittees would allow services to face liability "when an online platform knowingly or recklessly uses an algorithm or other technology to recommend content that materially contributes to physical or severe emotional injury," according to a news release accompanying the bill.

The proposal follows Senate testimony by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen, who alleged the site's algorithms focused on presenting the most engaging content, but in the process resulted in harms ranging from fostering political extremism to worsening the mental health of some at-risk young users. Haugen recommended making companies face more legal responsibility for their algorithms, which are at the core of their business, as one solution.

Bills to amend Sec. 230 have become a common way for lawmakers who are fed up with Big Tech to propose changes to the industry, and tech's lobbying operations in Washington are increasingly focused on defending the provision. The companies argue that any change that zeroes in on their knowledge would simply force them to look away from the most violent and abusive content, making the online environment worse rather than better.

Lawmakers have previously passed one change to Sec. 230 into law, which was designed to curb online sex trafficking, but more recent efforts have often split along partisan lines, with Republicans hoping to use changes to force social media companies to keep up more conservative content and Democrats hoping to tackle issues such as health misinformation.

Many proposals for addressing the challenges of social media are politically driven. Bills like Pallone's, which comes from those with subject matter expertise and authority over tech policy, represent a more rare and more potent threat to the companies.

Pallone's office said the bill would "not apply to search features or algorithms that do not rely on personalization," wouldn't touch on web hosting or data storage and would only affect larger companies with five million or more unique monthly visitors.

The introduction came on the same day that a bipartisan group of senators said they would put forward a proposed change to antitrust law for Big Tech, which also signaled high-level determination to curb the platforms.

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