Top House Democrats introduced a bill Thursday to make social media platforms such as Facebook and YouTube liable when they use their algorithms to recommend content that leads to physical or emotional harm, a move that would drastically change the platforms' business model.
Rep. Frank Pallone of New Jersey, the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, joined with other Democrats to introduce the Justice Against Malicious Algorithms Act to make large social media platforms responsible for "knowingly or recklessly" using their algorithms to prioritize posts that cause harm.
The bill's sponsors, including Democratic Reps. Mike Doyle of Pennsylvania, Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, and Anna Eshoo of California, referred to Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen's Senate testimony last week as evidence of the social media giant's malicious use of algorithms.
Huagen's trove of internal Facebook documents, collected earlier this year, indicated that the company's engagement-based ranking algorithms reward controversial and extreme content on the platform and can be toxic for some teenagers.
Democrats say Facebook is clearly violating the spirit behind Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a 1996 law, which protects social media companies such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter from being sued for content posted by their users.
“As Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen has proven through testimony and documents, Facebook is knowingly amplifying harmful content and abusing the immunity of Section 230 well beyond congressional intent,” said Eshoo, who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s health subcommittee.
The bill only applies to online platforms with over 5 million monthly users and won't apply to web hosting companies, such as Amazon Web Services, or user-specified searches on Google. It will be brought up before the House Energy and Commerce on Oct. 15.
However, liberal groups critical of Big Tech say the bill is flawed, even if they agree with its general purpose.
“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," said Evan Greer, director of the digital advocacy group Fight for the Future.
She added that Congress should instead be focused on passing federal data privacy legislation to address the root cause of the harm that platforms like Facebook and YouTube cause.
Greer also said that the Section 230 bill is likely to face an uphill challenge with centrist Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate, who are likely to view it as an overreach.
"Democrats control the House, Senate, and White House. If they can't get a privacy bill done, it's hard to take them seriously when they say they want to 'rein in Big Tech,'" Greer said.
Top House Republicans dropped legislation in July to overhaul Section 230, in an attempt to reduce what they say is rampant censorship of conservatives, by holding the major platforms accountable for content moderation decisions, empowering users to challenge censorship, and forcing the tech companies to be transparent about what they censor and why.
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Original Author: Nihal Krishan