Mar 17, 2020 - Technology

Report urges alternative to tampering with tech's liability 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."

Go deeper

DOJ official floats reining in tech companies' ability to censor

Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images.

A top Justice Department official suggested Tuesday that tech's prized liability shield could be changed to limit online platforms' ability to censor content.

The big picture: DOJ officials including Attorney General Bill Barr have expressed concerns about the reach of Section 230. His deputy now contends tech companies may be using the law as a “blank check” to remove lawful speech, echoing GOP claims that platforms disproportionately target conservative content for deletion.

TikTok forms outside group to help shape content moderation policies

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TikTok on Wednesday unveiled a group of outside advisers with expertise in child safety, hate speech, misinformation and other areas that will help guide its content moderation policies.

The big picture: Online platforms are facing intense scrutiny from lawmakers and even the Justice Department over how they decide what their users can and can't say and do.

Match Group first tech company to back anti-online child abuse bill

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Online dating company Match Group will tomorrow publicly support the EARN IT Act, a bipartisan Senate bill to combat online child sexual exploitation, Axios has learned.

Why it matters: Match, the parent company of major dating platforms such as Tinder, is breaking with the internet industry's leading trade group, which worries the bill could open a wedge for law enforcement to crack into encrypted systems, threatening user privacy.