Facebook, Twitter, Google CEOs divided on Section 230 reform

Zuckerberg, Pichai and Dorsey are set to testify before the US House Committee on Energy and Commerce about the spread of misinformation and disinformation online in the aftermath of the Jan 6 riots at the US Capitol. — AFP

Facebook Inc chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg supports reforming a decades-old US law that limits social media companies’ liability for content its users post online, while Google’s Pichai remained averse to any changes to the legal shield.

Zuckerberg, in prepared testimony ahead of a House hearing Thursday, called for making liability protection for Internet platforms conditional on having systems in place for identifying and removing unlawful material.

Zuckerberg will tell congressional representatives that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 “would benefit from thoughtful changes to make it work better for people, but identifying a way forward is challenging given the chorus of people arguing – sometimes for contradictory reasons – that the law is doing more harm than good”.

He added that platforms “should not be held liable if a particular piece of content evades its detection – that would be impractical for platforms with billions of posts per day”. Under Zuckerberg’s proposal, a third party would determine whether the company’s systems are adequate enough to handle the load.

Sundar Pichai, chief executive officer of Alphabet Inc’s Google, signaled he was opposed to any changes to the law. Reforming it or repealing it altogether “would have unintended consequences – harming both free expression and the ability of platforms to take responsible action to protect users in the face of constantly evolving challenges”, Pichai said in his prepared remarks.

Instead, Pichai wants companies to focus on “developing content policies that are clear and accessible”, such as notifying users if their work is removed and giving them ways to appeal such decisions.

Twitter Inc chief executive officer Jack Dorsey defended the company’s handling of misinformation, including applying labels to misleading posts about the vaccine and the election. Twitter has permanently banned former President Donald Trump and is soliciting feedback about how to handle world leaders who violate its rules, while Facebook is awaiting a verdict from its oversight board after suspending Trump’s account.

Dorsey warned that “content moderation in isolation is not scalable, and simply removing content fails to meet the challenges of the modern Internet”. Twitter is experimenting with new approaches to crowd source policing speech online, including a project called Birdwatch, which would allow users to add notes to tweets that are misleading or inaccurate.

“Every day, millions of people around the world Tweet hundreds of millions of Tweets, with one set of rules that applies to everyone and every Tweet,” Dorsey said. “We built our policies primarily around the promotion and protection of three fundamental human rights – freedom of expression, safety, and privacy.”

Zuckerberg, Pichai and Dorsey are set to testify before the US House Committee on Energy and Commerce about the spread of misinformation and disinformation online in the aftermath of the Jan 6 riots at the US Capitol.

Politicians on both sides of the aisle have challenged Section 230 in recent years. Republicans, with little evidence, have said the websites have suppressed conservative speech, while Democrats blame them for the flood of disinformation. – Bloomberg

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