By Ailan Evans(DCNF) House lawmakers considered several proposals to reform Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act in an Energy and Commerce Committee hearing Wednesday, with Republicans and Democrats each using the opportunity to advance their agenda.
While both parties lobbied for Section 230 reforms, their reasons for doing so and their proposals diverged considerably; Republicans stressed the dangers of tech companies censoring online speech, particularly conservative political content, and Democrats decried the threat posed by social media misinformation.
In her opening remarks, Republican Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers emphasized her concerns with tech platforms censoring speech, characterizing Democrats’ Section 230 reforms as an attempt to encourage social media companies to remove more conservative political content.
“It’s wrong for anyone to use this opportunity to push for more censorship, more power, and more control over what they determine Americans should say, post, think and do,” McMorris Rodgers said. “One of the bills before us today, the Justice Against Malicious Algorithms Act, is a thinly veiled attempt to pressure companies to censor more speech.”
The bill, introduced by top Energy and Commerce Democrats, removes Section 230 liability protections from tech platforms that recommend “personalized” content contributing to “physical or severe emotional injury” of a user, thereby allowing “injured” users to sue. Rep. Frank Pallone, who co-sponsored the bill, said the legislation would stop social media platforms from promoting “extremism” and “disinformation.”
“Clearly, companies will have to decide between leaving up content that may offend someone and fight it in court, or censor content that reaches a user; which do you think they’ll choose?” McMorris Rodgers asked.
Democratic Rep. Darren Soto dismissed allegations of tech censorship, arguing that Republicans were attempting to use free speech concerns to spread disinformation.
“It seems like as we’re working on key reforms like protecting civil rights, accountability for social media companies, and protecting our kids, the main opposition is by Republicans today; they want a license to have the right to lie without consequence,” Soto said.
“I wanted to start with a yes-or-no question: do you support Big Tech’s censorship of constitutionally protected speech on their platforms?” McMorris Rodgers asked Haugen.
“I believe we should be re-architecting these systems so that they are more focused on our family and friends, because this is not about good ideas or bad ideas; it is about making the system safe,” Haugen responded.
When McMorris pressed Haugen for a clear yes or no answer, she failed to provide one.
The hearing also featured left-leaning witnesses who stressed the dangers of misinformation and hateful speech on social media platforms, calling on lawmakers to reform Section 230 in order to hold platforms liable for such content.
“Big Tech is profiting off of yelling ‘fire in a crowded theater,’ and though I understand that we have these conversations about the First Amendment, there are limitations to what you can and cannot say,” Rashad Robinson, president and CEO of left-wing advocacy group Color of Change, adding that “freedom of speech is not freedom from consequences.”