Key House Member Eyes Internet Liability Changes Before Election

By and Rebecca Kern | January 29, 2020

Representative Jan Schakowsky has asked her staff to examine changes to a liability shield that protects tech platforms such as Facebook Inc. from lawsuits because of her concerns about how fake information could be used in the 2020 presidential election.

The Illinois Democrat, who chairs a House subcommittee on consumer protection and leads the chamber’s efforts to write privacy legislation, said Tuesday her staff is studying possible changes to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a law that protects big technology platforms from responsibility for user-generated content

Congress is increasingly scrutinizing the measure, which is highly prized by tech companies, amid growing complaints about online hate, misinformation, and posts linked to potentially illegal activity. She said she wants to move quickly given the upcoming election.

“I feel a sense of urgency that we could have a complete fantasy of a message campaign in this election,” Schakowsky said at a tech policy conference in Washington.

Democratic worries about fake election information increased in the wake of Russian disinformation efforts aimed at helping Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in 2016. Even with the backing of House leaders, Schakowsky’s bill would need to pass the Republican Senate and get Trump’s signature to become law. Both are unlikely, especially in an election year.

Schakowsky said her review is preliminary and focused on political information, rather than a broader range of concerns lawmakers have raised including child exploitation or online drug sales. She said she isn’t focused on removing the measure entirely and hasn’t yet decided how she would propose changing the law.

“We’re going do our best to lift that issue in as many ways as possible,” she said.

Schakowsky also said that Representative Kathy Castor, a Democrat from Florida on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, plans to introduce a bill Thursday to increase the age of children protected by the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act.

The 1998 law, known as COPPA, currently imposes requirements for websites or online services directed at children under 13. Privacy laws in Europe and California have extended those protections to children age 16 and under.

Castor’s bill would create a protected class of “young consumers” ages 13-17, ban companies from sending targeted advertisements to children, and require opt-in consent for all individuals under 18, according to a press release.

“We think it’s very important not just to warn and scold, but actually to put some protections right into the law,” Schakowsky said at the industry event. She said she wants to “put more of that burden on the companies who are providing the options.”

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