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The Technology 202

A newsletter briefing on the intersection of technology and politics.

Top Democrats unveil bill to rein in tech companies' ‘malicious algorithms’

The Technology 202

A newsletter briefing on the intersection of technology and politics.

Happy Thursday! It's a huge day for tech policy on Capitol Hill. Key lawmakers are dropping major bills aimed at addressing concerns about competition online and algorithmic recommendations. Keep scrolling for all the details. 

Top Democrats unveil bill to rein in tech companies' ‘malicious algorithms’

Top Democratic lawmakers unveiled a major proposal Thursday that could hold digital platforms like Facebook and Twitter legally responsible for making personalized recommendations to users that lead to their physical or emotional harm. 

The bill comes amid a groundswell of scrutiny of how algorithms can amplify harmful content in the wake of revelations by whistleblower Frances Haugen about Facebook’s risks. Her disclosures to the media and policymakers have shined a spotlight on the way Silicon Valley’s often-opaque systems can surface dangerous material. 

The legislation marks one of the most significant threats in years to the tech industry’s liability protections under Section 230, a decades-old law that shields a broad range of digital services — from giants like YouTube and Instagram to smaller sites like Etsy and Nextdoor — from lawsuits for hosting and moderating user content. 

The bill is set to be introduced Friday by four leaders of the House Energy and Commerce Committee — Reps. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.), Mike Doyle (D-Pa.), Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) and Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) — which holds broad jurisdiction over tech issues including Section 230. 

“Designing personalized algorithms that promote extremism, disinformation and harmful content is a conscious choice, and platforms should have to answer for it,” Pallone said. 

The legislation would carve out Section 230 so that a digital service could face liability if they knowingly or recklessly make a personalized recommendation that “materially contributed to a physical or severe emotional injury to any person.” The bill would apply to recommendations that use algorithms to boost certain content over others based on users’ personal information.

Lawmakers have introduced dozens of proposals to revamp or roll back tech companies’ liability protections in recent years, but almost all of them haven’t gone anywhere. 

Only one measure has been signed into law, FOSTA-SESTA — a proposal to open tech platforms up to liability for knowingly facilitating sex trafficking, which cleared former president Donald Trump’s desk in 2018. And just one other, a bill to make it easier to sue companies that host child exploitative material known as the EARN IT Act, has advanced out of committee since.

Attempts to weaken Section 230 have faced heavy opposition from the tech industry and some civil society groups, who consider it a foundational law that helped create the modern Internet. 

But the latest proposal the Justice Against Malicious Algorithms Act boasts some of the most powerful lawmakers in the space, instantly making it one of the top contenders of all the Section 230 bills to potentially become law. 

It’s the first bill targeting Section 230 led by Pallone, who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee and is a close ally to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). He ultimately controls what Section 230 bills get marked up and voted on by the panel and will surely look to advance his own proposal.

It seeks to sidestep thorny and politically divisive debates about what content should be left up or taken down by focusing instead on how platforms recommend content to users, and how those choices can lead to real-world harm. 

Democrats and Republicans have sparred for years over whether companies like Facebook over- or under-enforce many of their policies. Democrats say major platforms haven’t done enough to crack down on misinformation, hate speech and other online harms, while Republicans accuse the platforms of stifling conservative viewpoints. 

Haugen, who leaked troves of Facebook’s internal research about how its products impact users to the media and to Congress, zeroed in on the role algorithms play in causing harm to users during her recent testimony before the Senate. 

And she urged Congress to consider tweaking Section 230 to address the issue. 

“They have a hundred percent control over their algorithms, and Facebook should not get a free pass on choices it makes to prioritize growth and virality and reactiveness over public safety,” Haugen said at a hearing last week. 

One of the bill’s backers said Thursday that Haugen’s disclosures have crystallized the real issue at hand.

“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. 

While Haugen has brought more attention to the role of algorithms, lawmakers on the panel have been drilling into the issue for months. 

When the committee hauled in the CEOs of Facebook, Google and Twitter to testify at a hearing in March, Pallone tore into them for recommending dangerous material to users. 

“While it may be true that some bad actors will shout fire in a crowded theater, by promoting harmful content, your platforms are handing them a megaphone to be heard in every theater across the country and the world,” he said.

He added, “The time for self-regulation is over. It is time we legislate to hold you accountable.”

Our top tabs

A bipartisan group of senators will introduce a bill targeting Big Tech’s gatekeeping power

Senate Judiciary antitrust subcommittee chair Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), the top Republican on the subcommittee, plan to introduce the legislation next week, Cat Zakrzewski reports. The bill would make it illegal for Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google to give their own products and services an edge over rivals’.

Half a dozen other lawmakers have signed on as co-sponsors and Klobuchar expects more to join, Cat reports. The White House has been kept “informed” about the legislation as Klobuchar’s office worked on the bill, Klobuchar said.

Lawmakers blasted Amazon after a report on the company’s knockoffs and search-engine practices in India

One of the company’s India teams used internal data to copy other companies’ products, and the company put those knockoffs at the top of Amazon India’s search results, Reuters’s Aditya Kalra and Steve Stecklow report, based on thousands of pages of internal Amazon documents.

U.S. lawmakers say the report is further evidence that the company needs to be more heavily regulated.

  • Rep. David N. Cicilline (D-R.I.), who chairs the House Judiciary Committee’s antitrust panel, called on Congress to pass antitrust legislation targeting Amazon and other major technology companies.
  • Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.), the top Republican on Cicilline’s subcommittee, said the report contradicted Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’s statements to Congress, and that he and Amazon need to be “held accountable.” Buck was apparently referring to Bezos's July 2020 testimony before a House panel; Bezos said at the time that the company has policies against using such data, but he added that he “can't guarantee” that the policy wasn't ever violated. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) called the report’s takeaways “one of the many reasons we need to break it up.”

Amazon declined to comment on the lawmakers' statements.

The company has downplayed the report, which it told Reuters it couldn’t confirm because it hadn’t been provided the documents it was based on. However, the company added that “we believe these claims are factually incorrect and unsubstantiated.” It said its search results are “based on relevance to the customer’s search query, irrespective of whether such products have private brands offered by sellers or not.” The company didn’t address Reuters’s questions about copying products.

Facebook will increase harassment protections for journalists and human rights activists

Facebook plans to designate them as “involuntary” public figures that users won’t be able to call for the deaths of, Global Head of Safety Antigone Davis told Reuters’s Elizabeth Culliford. It comes as Facebook is under scrutiny by lawmakers, regulators and the public over leaked internal documents detailing the site’s harms.

Facebook is also expanding which attacks it prohibits users from directing at public figures, Davis told Reuters. For example, the company will not allow “severe and unwanted sexualizing content, derogatory sexualized photoshopped images or drawings or direct negative attacks on a person's appearance” in comments on their profiles, Culliford writes.

Rant and rave

Apple is studying how to turn its AirPods into a health device that would improve hearing, monitor posture and check a user's body temperature, the Wall Street Journal's Rolfe Winkler reports. SYFY WIRE's Trent Moore:

The Information's Jessica Lessin:

Politico's Alex Thompson and Elana Schor:

Inside the industry

Facebook clamps down on its internal message boards. (The New York Times)

Microsoft agrees to human rights review in deals with law enforcement, government (Bloomberg)

Twitter is trying out ads in the perfect new place: right in the replies (The Verge)


Ahead of ‘Animal Crossing: New Horizons’ announcement, content-starved fans feel snubbed (Alyse Stanley)

As Big Tech Grows in the Pandemic, Seattle Grows With It (The New York Times)


  • The Atlantic Council hosts an event on the geopolitics of international technology standards today at 10 a.m.
  • The House Energy and Commerce Committee’s consumer protection panel holds a hearing on legislation relating to e-commerce sites, gig workers and start-ups today at noon.
  • National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center Director Matthew C. Allen and executives from Amazon and Walmart discuss counterfeit goods in e-commerce at a Center for Data Innovation event today at 1 p.m.

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