Partisan Split Over Section 230 Reform; GOP Attacks Big Tech For Censorship, Democrats For Everything Else At Hearing

Republicans and Democrats talked over each other at the latest Congressional hearing over whether and how to yank legal immunity from social media tech giants, all of them mad but unlikely to agree on specific legislation.

The Subcommittee on Communications and Technology (of the Committee on Energy and Commerce) weighed in on “Holding Big Tech Accountable: Targeted Reforms to Tech’s Legal Immunity” with Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen back on the stand joined by witnesses including Kara Frederick, Research Fellow in Technology Policy The Heritage Foundation — who had also worked at Facebook, now called Meta. Haugen focused on the company’s divisive algorithms, Frederick on “the litany of suspensions of ordinary Americans by Big Tech platforms for expressing right-leaning political views.”

That was echoed in committee as Republicans lamented censorship of conservative voices and Democrats misinformation and civil rights abuses, extremism and polarization, vulnerable kids and inciting violence with reps on both sides expressing regret that, of all the bills and fixes Committee members have proposed to modify Section 230 so far, none are bipartisan.

230 is a key piece of legislation from 1996 that makes it impossible to hold Internet companies legally liable for content on their platforms or for decisions they make on taking it down or leaving it up.

“The Republicans and Democrats do not agree on this issue,” said Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas). He said the press is pushing a narrative that “we’re all made at big tech” and moving in the same direction. Not so. “It seems they [tech cos] want to censor in one direction,” he said. “And whose fault is it that that human beings are terrible to each other? Free speech is very messy. The founders knew that when they crafted the First Amendment.”

“They shut down free speech and shut down any viewpoint that does not serve their ideology. Why do they deserve liability protections,” said Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash). She backs narrow reforms limited to holding social media accountable for “censoring voices.” Her Republican colleagues variously accused “liberal” tech CEOs of “trying to shape a world where one set of thinkers are second class citizens” and said “disinformation and misinformation are being conflated to mean anything that big tech doesn’t like.”

“They hate conservatives, so they silence them,” said Jeff Duncan (R-SC)

Darren Soto (D-Fla), however, was equally irate: “Lies about Covid. Lies about the election. Lies about the January 6 insurrection. The main opposition is that Republicans want a license to lie without consequences… The Wuhan lab is a terrible example. And you want to talk about a Hunter Biden laptop? Really?” he said, referring, respectively, to the debate over where the Covid virus originated, and to a New York Post story about President Joe Biden’s son, both referenced by Republicans multiple times.

The voice of moderation, Adam Kinzinger (R-Illinois) lamented that “we are not coming together on legislation.”

The blame can’t be placed solely on social media, he said. “Despite my lengthy engagement with my colleagues before introducing my bills, and even after making changes to the bills based on their feedback, I could not find a partner on the other side of the aisle to lock arms with me take a stand and put something bipartisan out there to at least get the conversation going. Honestly, there are ideas coming from both sides of the dais that are worthy of debating. The devil is always in the details, but if we aren’t even trying to engage in a bipartisan process, we are never going to get a strong or lasting set of policy solutions.”

Kathleen Rice (D-NY) said not regulating social media “is our greatest national moral failure.”

Democratic proposals include the Protecting Americans from Dangerous Algorithms Act; the Civil Rights Modernization Act; the Safeguarding Against Fraud, Exploitation, Threats, Extremism, and Consumer Harms Act; and the Justice Against Malicious Algorithms Act.

Republicans have put out a series of proposals led by preserving constitutionally protected speech but including increased transparency and a series of carve outs to 230 protection including a Bad Samaritan carve out, a Chinese Communist Party carve out, a nondiscrimination carve out, a cyberbullying carve out, a terrorism carve out and others.

Haugen has caused Facebook no end of bad press with a massive document dump this fall exposing its internal workings. Committee chair Michael Doyle (D-PA) said in closing remarks that if anything ever does get done legislatively, it would be because of her.

“Facebook wants you to get caught up in a long, drawn out debate over the minutiae of different legislative approaches. Please don’t fall into that trap,” Haugen said. “Time is of the essence. There is a lot at stake here.”

The hearing is a two-parter, with a first panel discussing the problems of Section 230 and an afternoon panel now underway with a new set of witnesses aimed at identifying fixes.

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