Tech Trade Groups Open to Liability Shield Curb on Illegal Posts

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Representatives of trade groups for top internet companies such as Alphabet Inc.’s Google and Facebook Inc. opened the door to curbing a prized liability shield for illegal posts.

The groups said during a hearing Tuesday that they could support provisions in a bipartisan Senate bill that requires internet platforms to take down posts that courts have found to be illegal, such as defamatory posts or harassment.

The move represents a limited and rare concession by industry over the liability shield, which protects platforms from lawsuits over third-party content. Known as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, the measure is increasingly under threat from Democrats and Republicans alike, putting companies under pressure to accept changes.

“A well crafted statute could do a lot of good here,” said former Republican Representative Chris Cox, who co-authored Section 230 and is now a director at the trade group NetChoice. “I see no reason that court orders, and certainly final judgments, requiring the take down of content already adjudged to be defamatory, for example, shouldn’t be enforced.”

The June bill known as the PACT Act from Senators John Thune, the No. 2 Republican, and Brian Schatz, a Democrat, would require “large online platforms” to remove content within 24 hours if they’ve been notified that a court has determined it’s illegal. The bill would also remove Section 230 protections for that content, exposing the company to potential liability.

Elizabeth Banker, deputy general counsel at the Internet Association, called the idea of requiring the removals “a fruitful area of inquiry,” in her testimony, though she also called for “safeguards.” She said that many of the companies that her trade group represents, including Facebook and Google, would remove the content willingly. She also cautioned that sometimes plaintiffs seek and get take down orders that aren’t really merited.

The bill is one of several attempts to limit the liability shield, which include a recent White House order that aims to roll back protections for alleged political biases in content moderation, which President Donald Trump issued after Twitter Inc. fact-checked a post of his about voting.

Twitter on Tuesday temporarily suspended Donald Trump Jr.’s account after he shared a video touting hydroxychloroquine as an effective treatment for Covid-19.

Medical experts have expressed reservations about the potential efficacy and safety of the treatment. Twitter said the action was required because of its rules around misinformation on the coronavirus.

Republican Senator Mike Lee condemmed Twitter’s decision. “I strongly suspect there might be an ideological angle here or it might have something to do with the fact that he’s the president’s son,” Lee said during the hearing. “Either way, this is concerning in part because these kinds of things tend to influence public policy and public debate.”

Lee said he wasn’t sure that the solution to his concerns about anti-conservative bias, which are common among Republicans but rejected by the companies, lies in changes to Section 230.

Questions about conservative bias also are likely to be raised at a House antitrust subcommittee hearing Wednesday featuring chief executives from Google, Facebook, Amazon.com Inc. and Apple Inc. Lee on Monday also announced the Senate Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee would hold a September hearing to examine concerns around Google’s role in the online ad market.

Cox, of NetChoice, said the best way to curb bias would be to hold companies accountable for any promises to be neutral through enforcement by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission and state attorneys general.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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