Senate Democrats are split on new legislation that could force tech companies to censor online ads in the hopes of curbing misinformation and fraudulent claims. The bill is part of an effort to reform legal protections for online platforms such as Facebook and Google, which carry a majority of the ads online.
The bill, the SAFE TECH Act, led by Sens. Mark Warner, Amy Klobuchar, and Mazie Hirono, is one of the first steps at the federal level under the Biden administration toward reforming Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a provision that protects social media companies from liability for content posted by their users.
"Unfortunately, as written, it would devastate every part of the open internet and cause massive collateral damage to online speech," Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon said in a statement to the Washington Examiner.
"This bill would have the same effect as a full repeal of 230 but cause vastly more uncertainty and confusion, thanks to the tangle of new exceptions," Wyden added.
The legislation would create exceptions to the Section 230 immunity that online platforms use to protect themselves.
For example, the bill would require platforms take responsibility for paid content or ads that target vulnerable consumers with fraudulent products or scams. It would also make it easier for those harassed or intimidated online to sue social media companies when they enable harmful activity. Additionally, it would ensure the enforcement of civil rights laws isn't inhibited by the Section 230 protections, a cause that is important to many on the Left.
Digital advocates who want to reform Section 230 say that the large number of exceptions to the law within the SAFE TECH Act could create unintended consequences that would harm consumers and small businesses.
"If you tack on so many exceptions, you neuter the law and make it ineffective even though you haven't repealed it all together," said Greg Guice, head of government affairs at open internet advocacy group Public Knowledge.
Guice added that the SAFE TECH Act's multiple exceptions to Section 230 would make it far more difficult to succeed for future online startups that cannot afford the legal costs necessary to comply with the bill's requirements. He said that the bill could decrease competition online by benefiting social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter that can afford expensive liability protections.
Olivier Sylvain, a professor of communications law at Fordham University and a supporter of the SAFE TECH Act, said the bill's lack of differentiation between how Big Tech firms and small ones are affected was a weakness that could create some opposition to the legislation.
However, supporters of the bill say it carefully carves out exceptions to Sec. 230, targeting only the most egregious instances of online behavior. The bill is meant to target ads for products that are fraudulent, paid content that spreads propaganda and manipulates public opinion — such as what occurred in Myanmar in 2018, and help victims of online harassment campaigns.
"I think that the bill protects free speech while also recognizing targeted ads which dis-inform and polarize is a big problem," said Ramesh Srinivasan, an information studies professor at UCLA and a supporter of the bill.
Srinivasan said the bill's focus on targeted ads was "really really key" because they are one of the primary causes of misinformation, conspiracy theories, and fraud.
The bill is not likely to gain support from Republicans because it does not address allegations of anti-conservative bias on social media and it could censor conservative ads more than liberal ones.
"The ads being censored are anti-Semitic, racist, sexist, and instigating violence. If conservatives want to be associated with allowing such content, go for it," said Sylvain.
Digital activists fighting to reform Section 230 have hope that Republicans will eventually be open to curbing the harm and misinformation that liberals say come from certain targeted ads and paid content.
"Republicans are focused more on the anti-conservative bias than things like business ads being problematic, but I think they might come around to it," said Guice.
Many Republicans favor the PACT Act, a bipartisan bill from Sens. Brian Schatz, a Hawaii Democrat, and John Thune, a South Dakota Republican. The legislation focuses on content moderation transparency within social media platforms and allows for Big Tech companies to be sued and regulated by federal and state regulators.
Guice added that the PACT Act would force tech companies to be transparent about their rules when it comes to censorship and their algorithms, which Republicans hope will force them to be more accountable than creating new exceptions to Section 230, like the SAFE TECH Act does.
Both parties also favor the PACT Act's distinction between big and small companies. Only online platforms with over a million users and $25 million in revenue would be subject to the higher transparency standards and appellate processes. This would, in theory, allow new startups to succeed without burdensome costs until they grow to a certain size, said Guice.
"The bipartisan effort of the PACT Act shrewdly gets at the interests on both sides of the aisle," said professor Sylvain, a supporter of the SAFE TECH Act.