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Biden asks Congress to pass Section 230 reform as case goes to Supreme Court

By Sarah May
|
January 13, 2023

With the U.S. Supreme Court poised to hear arguments in a key case involving statutory liability shields for Internet companies, President Joe Biden is urging Democrats and Republicans to find common ground and pass bipartisan legislation to increase accountability among Big Tech firms, as CNN reports.

The high court is slated to consider the extent to which Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act should continue to protect tech firms' decisions regarding the display, organization, and recommendation of content to its users, and the president is asking lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to enact meaningful reforms.

Bipartisan reform urged

In a recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, Biden explained that while he does believe there has been some progress made in terms of bolstering federal oversight of Big Tech, the current state of play under Section 230 detrimentally circumscribes what else might be done to keep abuses in check.

As Engadget notes, the president referenced his lingering worries about the manner in which certain tech companies “collect, share and exploit our most personal data, deepen extremism and polarization in our country, tilt our economy's playing field, violate the civil rights of women and minorities and even put our children at risk.”

Specifically, Biden outlined three realms in which he believes change is needed, starting with privacy, and he noted that “serious federal protections,” particularly for children, must be implemented regarding how firms can collect, use, and share certain kinds of information about users.

The president also addressed concerns about the algorithms used by major tech companies, urging reform designed to “stop them from discriminating, keeping opportunities away from equally qualified women and minorities, or pushing content to children that threatens their mental health and safety.”

Biden's op-ed also wants to see reform in the direction of boosting competition across the tech industry and away from the tendency among successful platforms to “promote their own products while excluding or disadvantaging competitors.”

Congressional resolve uncertain

Biden emphatically declared, “We need bipartisan action from Congress to hold Big Tech accountable,” he observed, “[w]e've heard a lot of talk about creating committees,” and opined, “[i]t's time to walk the walk and get something done.” It remains uncertain whether Democrats and Republicans will be able to reconcile their divergent motivations and priorities and grant the president's wish.

While it is certainly true that there have been calls for Section 230 reform from both sides of the aisle, the rationales cited by Democrats and Republicans are entirely different.

For their part, Democrats have suggested that Big Tech firms need to face more stringent liability when they fail to moderate and remove what is deemed to be problematic user content, while Republicans have claimed that greater liability should come into play because those same companies remove and censor too much content, as CNN pointed out.

Despite Biden's decision to highlight the need for cooperation on this issue, the divided nature of the current Congress has made movement on the issue less likely, though that is not to say that efforts to find middle ground have come to a halt.

Algorithms protected?

On Feb. 21, the U.S. Supreme Court will entertain arguments in the matter of Gonzalez v. Google, a case pundits suggest could have a transformative effect on the Internet as it relates to Section 230, as the Washington Examiner notes.

At issue in the case are allegations against the Big Tech behemoth made by the family of a U.S. citizen killed in an ISIS attack in France back in 2015, as The Hill explains.

Family members of the victim claim that YouTube, owned by Google, hosted a platform that not only permitted posting of terrorist content online, but also – by way of its proprietary algorithm – pointed users to similar content designed to recruit new Islamic State supporters and incite violent activity.

As such, the case turns largely on whether the court finds that Section 230's protections should extend even to the algorithms used by Google and others, and the matter is expected to yield a pivotal interpretation of the statute's scope.

“Serious consequences” possible

In a brief filed with the high court on Thursday, Google contended that current interpretations of Section 230 must be upheld, suggesting that to do otherwise would leave the Internet “with a forced choice between overly curated mainstream sites or fringe sites flooded with objectionable content.”

The company further argued that changing the present, expansive application of Section 230 would “impede access to information, limit free expression, hurt the economy, and leave consumers more vulnerable to harmful online content.”

Though it remains to be seen how the full court will ultimately receive Google's contentions on the Gonzalez case, Justice Clarence Thomas has already signaled his openness to reining in Section 230 protections for tech giants, stating back in 2020 that extending the statute's immunity “beyond the natural reading of the text can have serious consequences” and that a narrower reading of the law may be required.