Instead of putting human rights and free expression in danger by tinkering with Section 230, Democrats should stop making excuses and pass a real Federal data privacy law, strong enough to kill Facebook’s current business model.
Today, several Democratic lawmakers proposed a bill that attempts to create a carve-out in Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act for personalized algorithmic amplification of content. While lawmakers are correct to focus on Facebook’s surveillance-driven algorithms as the root cause of this harm, this bill would fail to address that harm, while undermining human rights and freedom of expression, particularly for marginalized communities.
Digital rights group Fight for the Future issued the following statement, which can be attributed the group’s to director, Evan Greer (she/her):
“This bill is well-intentioned, but it’s a total mess. Democrats are playing right into Facebook’s hands by proposing tweaks to Section 230 instead of thoughtful policies that will actually reduce the harm done by surveillance driven algorithms.
Lawmakers seem to think that this bill would essentially force Facebook to just ‘turn off the News Feed algorithm.’ If that were true, we’d support it. But, like with SESTA/FOSTA, lawmakers are failing to understand how these policies will actually play out in the real world. Because of the way that 230 actually functions, a change like this would essentially gut the law. Facebook would likely be able to survive this, but smaller competitors wouldn’t. That’s why Facebook has repeatedly called for changes to Section 230––they know it will only serve to solidify their dominance and monopoly power. The bill sloppily tries to address this problem with a ‘small business carveout,’ but it’s so poorly drafted that the carveout wouldn’t even apply to a nonprofit like Daily Kos, which boasts more than 6 million monthly page visitors. Platforms like Wikipedia, Etsy, Yelp, and even Bandcamp also would not be protected.
Section 230 is not a magical lever that you can pull to ‘allow’ or ‘disallow’ corporate behavior––it’s a carefully crafted law that makes the First Amendment function at the Internet scale. Exempting personalized and algorithmically amplified content from Section 230 protections wouldn’t prevent platforms from using algorithms to pick and choose what users see, it would just incentivize those platforms to show users more ‘sanitized,’ corporate content that has been vetted by lawyers as ‘non-controversial.’ Your news feed would become like Disneyland, and platforms like Facebook would become largely useless for activists, artists, and community organizers.
Corporations are incredibly skilled at avoiding liability, even if it means trampling on the rights of marginalized people. SESTA/FOSTA is a harrowing example. Rather than try to figure out which user generated content might result in liability, platforms would likely suppress all organic user content while pumping your feed full of engaging-but-safe content from corporate partners.
More than 70 civil rights, LGBTQ+, sex worker advocacy, and human rights organizations sent a letter cautioning lawmakers about the potential dangers of changing Section 230. Not a single one of the top Democratic lawmakers who proposed this bill have acknowledged those concerns. It’s a slap in the face to those who were harmed by SESTA/FOSTA for Democrats to continue proposing changes to Section 230 without listening to those who are impacted. Additionally, none of the lawmakers supporting this bill have endorsed the Safe Sex Worker Study Act, which would investigate the harm done by SESTA/FOSTA. How can Democrats responsibly propose more changes to Section 230 without supporting a bill to investigate whether the last changes did more harm than good?
Instead of undermining global human rights and freedom of expression by tinkering with Section 230, lawmakers should take aim at the data harvesting and surveillance practices that provide the fuel for the harmful algorithms employed by companies like Facebook and YouTube.
Nearly 60 leading human rights organizations launched HowToStopFacebook.org yesterday calling for the U.S. Congress to finally pass a strong Federal data privacy law. Democrats have for years blamed Republicans for standing in the way of comprehensive privacy legislation. Now that they control the House, Senate, and White House, there is no excuse. Instead of introducing more Section 230 messaging bills that will never pass, Democrats should actually govern, listen to the overwhelming consensus of civil society, and pass a privacy bill strong enough to kill Facebook’s surveillance driven business model while leaving the democratizing power of the Internet intact.”