Jun 24, 2020 - Technology

Latest bill on tech shield pushes for transparency in moderation

Sen. Brian Schatz speaks at a hearing

Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii). Photo: Zach Gibson/Getty Images.

A bipartisan pair of senators introduced legislation Wednesday that would require online platforms to explain content moderation decisions to users, the latest push to change tech's liability shield.

Why it matters: While the Trump administration's push to update the liability shield by executive order focuses on charges of anti-conservative censorship, Democrats and Republicans are finding common ground on other areas to change the law.

Details: Sens. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and John Thune (R-S.D.) the leaders of the Senate Commerce communications subcommittee, say their Platform Accountability and Consumer Transparency Act would clarify Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act in order to give consumers more information about content moderation and hold companies accountable if content violates their own policies or is illegal. The bill would:

  • Require online platforms to explain their content moderation policies to users, and provide statistics on content that has been removed, demonetized or de-prioritized in quarterly reports.
  • Require large platforms to create a complaint system that notifies users of moderation decisions within 14 days, and allows them to appeal decisions. (Small platforms would have more flexibility in responding to user complaints).
  • Create a federal civil law carveout in the immunity shield so platforms can't use it as a defense in cases brought by the Justice Department.

"The most common complaint that we receive is that the whole thing is a black box, and that there doesn't appear to be any consistent application of even their own rules," Schatz told reporters. "This law would simply require they apply their rules, explain how they are applying those rules, and pull down any illegal content."

Context: The legislation is one of several attempts at reforming Section 230, which allows platforms to host content from users without assuming legal liability for it.

  • Another bipartisan Senate proposal, the EARN IT Act, focuses on child sexual exploitation online and threatens platforms with losing their immunity under Section 230 if they failed to meet government-set standards for preventing abuse.
  • GOP Sen. Josh Hawley recently introduced a bill that would require online platforms to include in their terms of service a pledge of "good faith" and details of their content moderation policies, then let users who feel wronged sue the firms.

But Schatz drew a distinction between other efforts and this bill, saying the conversation in Congress on Section 230 so far has been "stupid and polarized."

  • "We are pleased with this legislation because we think it can pass," Schatz said. "We are pleased with this legislation because we think it is time to lower the temperature on the conversation around 230, and start to go through the regular order and actually make a bill, as opposed to make a stand."
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