Mar 17, 2020 - Technology

Report urges alternative to tampering with tech's liability shield

An illustration of mouse cursors pointing at a shield.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

A new report out Tuesday from a non-profit focused on online free expression is calling on federal lawmakers to mandate more transparency from tech companies rather than weakening the industry's liability shield.

Why it matters: Internet platforms could embrace policies like transparency requirements as a far more palatable alternative to eroding their immunity from lawsuits over user-posted content, which they say is vital to their existence.

Context: Lawmakers seeking to rein in platforms over a variety of concerns, including online child exploitation, are considering altering the longstanding shield, found in Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996.

Details: Ranking Digital Rights, which is affiliated with New America's Open Technology Institute, warns that changes to Section 230 will lead to online censorship as companies take an overly cautious approach to content.

What they're saying: The report recommends legislation that would require online platforms to:

  • publish their rules for what content and targeted advertising they allow;
  • issue reports on the content and ads they take down for breaking the rules; and
  • explain the algorithms that determine what ends up on someone's screen.

"This kind of transparency is not the end goal," Nathalie Maréchal, one of the authors, told Axios. "This kind of transparency is a necessary first step toward accountability."

What's next: Ranking Digital Rights plans to produce a second report later this spring on federal privacy legislation and improving tech company governance.

The bottom line: Changes to Section 230 are grabbing lawmakers' attention when it comes to regulating tech companies when they should be exploring other options, Maréchal argued.

  • "The governments have been focused on 'Let's force the companies to censor better'," she said. "No matter what companies do, they’re never going to be able to purge the internet of problematic content."

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