Senator Graham Wants to Limit Internet Firms’ Liability Protections

By | July 10, 2019

Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham said Tuesday he wants to limit a liability exemption treasured by internet platforms such as Alphabet Inc.’s Google and Facebook Inc. if they don’t comply with industry best practices.

The comments by Graham, an ally of President Donald Trump, show increasing congressional skepticism of the legal shield, which says the companies can’t be sued for content that third parties produce. That protection is coming under fire in Washington amid continuing episodes of online hate speech, misinformation and election interference.

Congress last year pared the exemption, which is spelled out in Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, to tackle online sex trafficking. The tech industry has viewed efforts to further amend the law, including a recent proposal by Republican Senator Josh Hawley, as unlikely to gain momentum. Hawley has drafted a bill that would require the biggest tech companies to prove they treat content in a politically neutral way before they could benefit from the shield.

“Things would change tomorrow if you could get sued,” Graham said during a hearing on online dangers to kids.

Graham said he would like to collect best practices from industry, government and the non-profit sector and then regularly audit companies’ compliance as the basis for granting liability protection. He suggested the changes would include best practices for protecting children from online exploitation, but could be wider and include a range of complaints about online content.

Senator Lindsey Graham

“You can have these liability protections, because we’d like to save the industry and protect it for competition, but you have to earn it,” Graham said.

“As long as you keep up-to-date with what is expected in terms of best business practices you can’t be sued,” he told reporters after the hearing. He floated the idea of creating a new government agency to take charge of the certifications.

Costly Changes

Tech companies and trade groups have argued that changes to Sec. 230, which was written during the nascent years of the internet economy in the 1990s, would be costly to companies, harm start-ups and create liability for taking content down as well as leaving it up.

Changes to the liability shield could hurt both companies and users, said Michael Beckerman, president and chief executive officer of the Internet Association, which represents online platforms including Google, Facebook and Twitter Inc.

“It’s the law that enables platforms of all sizes to moderate harmful content and host users’ posts, photos, videos, ratings, reviews, and more,” Beckerman said. “Changes to this law could have real, negative effects on the apps and services that millions of Americans rely upon every day.”

Graham countered the notion that the companies need the breadth of protection offered by the law.

“They were given to make sure the industry would flourish,” he said. “Mission accomplished.”

Graham said he believed he would have bipartisan support. Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal, who was instrumental in the passage of the recent changes to the law, views that Sec. 230 was “the biggest obstacle to accountability.”

“The immunity, which is so broad and uniquely encompassing by many of the tech companies, is part of the reason that they are failing to do more,” said Blumenthal, who added later that he’s open to working with Graham on a bill.

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