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The Technology 202: Another day, another attempt to regulate tech by carving up Section 230

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with Aaron Schaffer

Correction: An earlier version of this newsletter incorrectly said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) suggested taking away section 230 protections for companies that have hate speech on their websites.

Coronavirus cases are rising again in the United States, and Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy says social media companies are at least partly to blame by helping spread lies and misinformation about vaccines

Facebook, YouTube and Twitter say they’re doing everything they can to cut back on bad coronavirus information. They’ve blocked millions of posts, shut down entire groups of anti-vaccine users and plastered people’s feeds with links to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website. But misinformation researchers say it’s not enough, and the companies’ algorithms, which promote the most engaging content, are working against the anti-misinformation effort.

On Thursday, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), one of the most prominent Big Tech critics in Congress, came out with her own solution to the problem. Her new bill seeks to amend Section 230  the two-decade-old law that protects Internet companies from getting sued for content posted to their websites to make social media liable for the health-care misinformation floating around their platforms. 

If you’ve been watching the wrangling over tech regulation in Washington over the past few years, this tactic will be familiar to you. It’s definitely not the first time a lawmaker has suggested carving a certain category of content out of Section 230.

The most prominent example is probably the only one that’s actually succeeded. In 2018, Congress passed a bill removing Section 230 protections for companies aware of sex trafficking on their sites. Free speech advocates said it was a dangerous precedent that could snowball into the law, which many see as fundamental to maintaining a free and open Internet, being deconstructed completely. 

That hasn’t happened, though there have been many attempts in the past three years by other politicians. Soon after the sex-trafficking amendment passed, there was discussion in Congress about making a similar change related to opioids and other drugs being sold on social media sites like Instagram. 

Conservatives, who have raised millions of dollars from donors over the past several years by casting themselves as fighting against alleged Big Tech censorship, have repeatedly tried to overhaul Section 230. Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.) proposed a bill taking away protections for content that was pushed by recommendation algorithms. Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri, another Republican keenly interested in tech issues, introduced a change that would remove 230 protections for companies with more than 30 million U.S. users or revenue over $500 million. Neither went anywhere.

They’re not alone, though. Democrats have mused about carving up Section 230 just as hungrily as Republicans. During his campaign for the president in 2020, former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D) called for an amendment to section 230 that would make companies more liable for hate speech posted to their platforms.

So Klobuchar’s new bill is just the latest in a growing tradition. The problem, though, is the First Amendment protects social media companies’ right to moderate their platforms how they see fit, and it’s highly unlikely any big changes to the law would be approved by a court, says Jeff Kosseff, a cybersecurity law professor at the U.S. Naval Academy and the author of a book on the history of Section 230. “If it were to pass, I don’t think it would ever survive a First Amendment challenge,” Kosseff said in a phone conversation.

The bill would also give the Department of Health and Human Services secretary the power to define what is and isn’t health misinformation, potentially creating all sorts of political conflicts. One might agree with the current secretary’s definition, but what if you fast forward four years and someone from the opposite party is in power?

“We all want less misinformation online, but this approach would turn future Republican presidents into the speech police,” Adam Kovacevich, chief executive of tech trade association Chamber of Progress, said in an email. “When President Ron DeSantis’ HHS Secretary deems pro-choice and transgender speech ‘misinformation,’ Democrats would regret this.

For better or worse, Section 230 has captured the imaginations of politicians and voters, even if they don’t fully understand how it works or the potential consequences of changing it. And it seems likely the language will continue to be a target for people taking shots at Big Tech and the power companies like Facebook and Google hold in our lives. But they’ll likely have to look beyond Section 230 if they want concrete change. 

Not all solutions to what’s wrong with the Internet are going to come through Section 230,” Kosseff said. “There’s not any easy answers.”

Our top tabs

Amazon said it will investigate cloud-computing workers’ claims of systemic discrimination, harassment and bias.

The company agreed to look into the claims about the culture of its cloud-computing unit as an internal petition calling for a review garnered more than 550 signatures, Jay Greene reports.  

(Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

The petition calls for an independent investigation of “employee concerns that there is a noninclusive culture” and the formation of an employee council to work with an external investigator. 

AWS chief executive Adam Selipsky told the authors of the petition last week that Amazon hired an outside firm to investigate the allegations and that he would review the findings, though he didn’t commit to a timetable for the investigation. “I share your passion for ensuring that our workplace is inclusive and free of bias and unfair treatment,” Selipsky wrote. Amazon spokeswoman Jaci Anderson declined to comment on the investigation.

Experts warn that little is preventing your location data from being bought, sold and de-anonymized.

A newsletter’s use of location data to track a top priest’s alleged activity on queer dating app Grindr is the worst-case scenario that privacy experts have been warning about for years, Heather Kelly writes

The newsletter said it obtained the location data through a “data vendor.” Grindr and other apps have long shared data with third-party data brokers, who sell it on the open market. 

In response to the newsletter post, Grindr said that the alleged activities are “incredibly unlikely to occur.” It later shared an updated statement saying that “we do not believe Grindr is the source of the data” and that Grindr has policies and systems to protect personal data. It did not specify them.

There are a few things you can do to reduce your exposure, such as locking down the data that apps on your devices can access, according to Bennett Cyphers, a staff technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Read more here.

Amazon this week told customers to sue the company instead of filing arbitration claims.

The e-commerce giant was flooded by 75,000 arbitration claims alleging that its Echo and other devices were recording customers without their consent, the New York Times’ s Michael Corkery reports. The announcement to customers comes nearly two months after the company bucked an industry trend of forcing customers to go through arbitration.

The brief email Amazon sent to customers does not explain why it is leaving arbitration. A company spokesperson did not elaborate on the change.

“This is a big deal,” New York University Law School Professor Florencia Marotta-Wurgler told the Times. “For so long, the tide had been going the other way, with companies adding arbitration clauses to their contracts.”

Rant and rave

An Internet outage linked to Akamai affected major websites on Thursday before it was resolved. The Arizona Republic’s Melissa Yeager had this analogy: 

Blacknight Solutions CEO Michele Neylon:

CNBCs Jordan Novet:

Inside the industry

WPP pulls out of Facebook’s media agency review (Wall Street Journal)

Mark Zuckerberg is betting Facebook’s future on the metaverse (The Verge)

Workforce report

Blizzard president Brack allowed toxicity to fester, according to lawsuit (Gene Park)

Trending

She accidentally provided the ‘Lose Yo Job’ soundtrack to Biden victory memes this fall. He could learn a lot from hearing her story. (Piper Kerman)

‘Ted Lasso,’ built on charm and empathy, won over America. It won over the soccer world, too. (Thomas Floyd)

Cuba censored the Internet amid protests. Florida leaders want Biden to respond with balloon-based wireless. (Kim Bellware)

Daybook

  • Rep. Suzan DelBene (D-Wash.) speaks at a Brookings Institution event on cross-border data transfers today at 12:30 p.m.

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