Oct 26, 2020 - Technology

The people trying to get in Biden's head on holding tech accountable

Photo illustration of Joe Biden surrounded by cursors.

Photo illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

Joe Biden has said he wants to make tech platforms more accountable for rampant misinformation, and different players are now trying to get his ear on just how to do that should he win the election next week.

The big picture: Biden has never sketched out a specific tech policy platform, leaving an opening for different interests to try to shape his views on issues pertaining to Silicon Valley — including tech's prized liability shield.

Where it stands: There are two broad camps jockeying for influence on the question of how to make tech take greater responsibility for curbing misinformation, extremism and hate speech.

  • On the one side are those who want to overhaul or even altogether scrap Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, the law that keeps platforms from being sued over moderation calls and user-posted material.
  • On the other are those who say killing Section 230 would only incentivize platforms against moderating at all. They're instead pushing to leave the law intact but find alternative ways to ratchet up the legal pressure on companies like Facebook and Twitter to keep harmful content offline.

The intrigue: Biden is no fan of Section 230. He told the New York Times editorial board back in January that it should be "revoked, immediately," after Facebook declined to fact-check or remove misleading anti-Biden ads from President Trump's campaign.

  • Biden's position on Section 230 remains unchanged, a campaign spokesperson told Axios.

Yes, but: He has not made Section 230 a signature campaign trail issue, and in the time since January, the issue has become far more politically charged. Conservatives including Trump have become the loudest voices calling for the repeal of Section 230, citing the alleged suppression of right-leaning online content.

What they're saying: "We've had discussions at the highest level of the campaign recently," said Jim Steyer, the CEO of children's advocacy group Common Sense Media and among the more prominent and politically connected figures calling for a Section 230 re-write from the left. (Steyer also helps lead the Stop Hate for Profit campaign, which calls on advertisers to stop running ads on Facebook).

Of note: Steyer has a close ally in this push in Bruce Reed, a top policy adviser to Biden and longtime member of the former vice president's inner circle.

  • Steyer and Reed co-authored an essay, which appears in a new book Steyer has out on technology's impact on democracy, calling on Washington to "throw Section 230 out" and start over. They say U.S. law should treat tech platforms more like publishers, which accept legal liability for the material they print.

The other side: Tech industry veterans as well as some academics and civil society groups are urging the next administration against calling for the death of Section 230.

One alternative proposal shared exclusively with Axios comes courtesy of Matt Perault, formerly Facebook's director of public policy and now at Duke's Center on Science & Technology Policy (which receives some funding from Google). It's part of the Day One Project, a set of science and technology plans compiled by a bipartisan group including many Obama-administration alums.

  • Perault's plan, among other things, envisions the next president working Congress to pass a new federal law to criminalize certain online speech such as intentional voter suppression — Section 230 doesn't protect platforms from prosecution if they knowingly let users break federal laws — as well as a law to force platforms to quickly comply if a court orders them to remove illegal content.
  • Perault told Axios he doesn't believe his proposal would mean "all of a sudden problematic content will go away." But, he said, "There's a way to make the internet better and not break it."

The bottom line: Regardless of who wins out on Section 230, Biden is unlikely to return to the era of totally unregulated tech. “Nobody thinks a potential Biden administration is going to be Obama 2.0 with respect to tech,” said one tech industry source.

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