Senator Mark Warner, Democrat of Virginia, is set to introduce a new bill that could hold Facebook, Google, and other tech giants more directly accountable when viral online posts and videos result in real-world harm.
The measure is dubbed the SAFE TECH Act, and it marks the latest salvo from congressional lawmakers against Section 230. The decades-old federal rules help facilitate free expression online, but Democrats including Warner say they also allow the most profitable tech companies to skirt responsibility for hate speech, election disinformation, and other dangerous content spreading across the web.
The senator’s new proposal preserves the thrust of Section 230, which generally spares a wide array of website operators from being held liable for what their users say. Instead, it opens an easier legal pathway for Web users to seek court orders and file lawsuits if posts, photos, and videos — and the tech industry’s refusal to police them — threaten them personally with abuse, discrimination, harassment, the loss of life, or other irreparable harm.
“How can we continue to give this get-out-of-jail card to these platforms that constantly do nothing to address the foreseeable, obvious, and repeated misuse of their products and services to cause harm? That was kind of our operating premise,” Warner said.
Ultimately, it would be up to a judge to decide the merits of these claims; the bill mostly opens the door for web users to argue their cases without running as much risk of having them dismissed early. Facebook, Google, Twitter, and other social-media sites stand to lose these highly coveted federal protections under Warner’s bill only in the case of abusive paid content, such as online advertisements, that seek to defraud or scam customers.
“You shouldn’t get immunity from this advertising content that’s providing you revenue,” said Warner, who is introducing the measure along with Democratic Senators Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Mazie Hirono of Hawaii.
The proposal reflects the political rift between Washington and Silicon Valley that has only widened in the weeks since a mob stormed the US Capitol in a violent, failed insurrection. Rioters at the time acted on the words of then-president Donald Trump and his false claims of election fraud that had proliferated across social-media sites — once again raising questions about the extent to which Facebook, Google, and Twitter, and a vast web of lesser-known forums, are properly policing their sites and services.
The incident has injected fresh urgency into familiar calls to rethink Section 230, which intensified last year amid a flood of proposals from Democrats and Republicans seeking to reform or repeal the law. In response, the country’s largest technology companies have sought to tread carefully: Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg and his fellow executives have signaled an openness to changing Section 230, but the companies have not endorsed the most sweeping proposals that would hold them accountable for their missteps.
“I’m going to be very interested to see how the industry reacts to this,” Warner said in an interview this week previewing his bill. “It’s going to be where the rubber hits the road. Are they going to pay lip service to reform?”
In seeking to sketch out his proposal, Warner said its passage could have wide-ranging effects: It could allow the survivors in the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar to sue Facebook, for example, since the social network had been slow to take down content that stoked ethnic tensions.
“If there are going to be victims of platform-enabled human rights violations,” Warner said, “that should not be thrown out [of court].”
Those who face physical harassment also would have clearer legal avenues at their disposal, he said. Warner pointed to a 2017 court case involving the dating app Grindr. A New York man sued the company at the time, claiming it had failed to disable a series of fake profiles created by his former partner for the purpose of causing physical harassment. A judge later ruled Grindr could not be held responsible, citing Section 230 — a mistake, in Warner’s view, that his bill now aspires to fix.
“Clearly, that individual was having his personal reputation, his life, thrown into complete chaos,” said Warner, noting his bill would address the issue. “He should be able to get injunctive relief, that should not be prohibited. Grindr should not be able to hide behind Section 230.”
Even before his bill had been formally introduced, Warner’s effort had drawn the support of a slew of civil rights organizations, including the Anti-Defamation League, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and Color of Change. Many organizations said Warner’s approach would offer new routes to justice particularly for people of color, who face significant harassment and discrimination stemming from social-media sites.
“This bill would make irresponsible big tech companies accountable for the digital pollution they knowingly and willfully produce, while continuing to protect free speech online,” David Brody, a senior fellow for privacy and technology at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said in a statement.