US debate on Internet liability spills over to global trade deals

WASHINGTON (AFP) – United States (US) lawmakers seeking to rein in Big Tech have been stepping up efforts to limit legal immunity for online services, and now are taking that fight global.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi this week backed a move by fellow lawmakers to carve out the so-called Section 230 protection – which some activists said is a cornerstone of the open Internet – from a North American trade pact with Canada and Mexico, known as USMCA.

“There are concerns in the House about enshrining the increasingly controversial Section 230 liability shield in our trade agreements, particularly at a time when Congress is considering whether changes need to be made in US law,” Pelosi spokesman Henry Connelly said.

Debate on Section 230, a clause in the 1996 Communications Decency Act, has been raging for months amid rising concerns about the failure of tech platforms to curb hate speech, extremist content, copyright infringement and other abuses.

The effort to modify the law – which immunises online services from third-party content on their sites – has drawn support from both Democrats and Republicans.

Some analysts say that anger at Big Tech platforms is the reason for a push to limit their immunity, but that a stricter regulatory system could backfire. PHOTO: AFP

Republican Senator Josh Hawley proposed legislation earlier this year that would end the immunity unless companies submit to an “external audit” which shows they are acting in a “politically neutral” manner. “With Section 230, tech companies get a sweetheart deal that no other industry enjoys: complete exemption from traditional publisher liability in exchange for providing a forum free of political censorship,” Hawley said in introducing the legislation. “Unfortunately, and unsurprisingly, big tech has failed to hold up its end of the bargain.”

Civil liberties activists said Hawley’s bill is unconstitutional and would put the government in charge of regulating speech. Other analysts point out that Section 230 has enabled the internet to thrive and that modifying it could be devastating for the Internet and online speech. “The services that we enjoy the most exist because of Section 230,” said Director of the High-Tech Law Institute at Santa Clara University Eric Goldman.

Goldman said Section 230 has become a “proxy” for the frustrations with Facebook and Google but that “American consumers would be the losers” if the law is weakened.

Corynne McSherry of the Electronic Frontier Foundation told a congressional hearing in October that Section 230 protects not only major tech platforms, but any online activity – from forwarding an email to commenting in a news forum to sharing pictures and videos of friends – from “third party liability”.

McSherry said that without Section 230, tech firms such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter would not exist in their current form because they would not be able to host user content without fear of a lawsuit.