Renewed Liability Shield Bill Aims to Hold Tech Accountable (1)

  • Reintroduced bill would require tech transparency reporting
  • First bipartisan effort in 2021 to reform tech’s liability shield

(Updates with industry reactions beginning in ninth paragraph.)

Senators are releasing the first bipartisan bill of the year to overhaul technology platforms’ liability shield a week before the chief executives from Facebook, Google and Twitter testify before Congress about the prevalence of misinformation online.

The Platform Accountability and Consumer Transparency (PACT) Act, reintroduced Wednesday by Sens. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and John Thune (R-S.D.), would hold technology companies accountable for moderating content on their platform by making changes to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, according to a Senate aide.

The bill would “preserve user-generated content and free speech on the internet, while increasing consumer transparency and the accountability of big internet platforms,” Thune said in an emailed statement.

Thune is the ranking member of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Subcommittee on Communications, Media, and Broadband. He said the bill is “a big win for America’s ever-expanding digital landscape and the consumers who depend on it.”

Photographer: Greg Nash/The Hill/Bloomberg
Sen. Thune offered a version of the bipartisan legislation in the 116th Congress.

The law, which protects tech companies from lawsuits over platform content, has faced bipartisan criticism in recent years. Democrats have attacked social media companies for not removing disinformation and extremist speech, while Republicans claim the platforms censor conservative voices. The urgency to hold tech companies accountable escalated after the spread of misinformation online led to the deadly Jan. 6 Capitol attacks, which ultimately prompted major platforms to ban former President Donald Trump.

Tech’s Liability Shield Under Fire: 26 Words and What’s at Stake

The revised bill, which was originally introduced last Congress, would require large online platforms to remove content within four days if notified of a court determination that the content is illegal. Last year’s bill required companies to respond within 24 hours.

The updated legislation would require companies to issue biannual transparency reports—versus quarterly reports in the previous bill—that include data on content that’s been removed, demonetized, or deprioritized. It would allow consumers to appeal content moderation decisions. The U.S. Justice Department, Federal Trade Commission, and state attorneys general could also pursue civil lawsuits for online activity under the bill.

The legislation would let individuals lodge complaints with platforms, with the revised bill adding a requirement that complaints must be made in “good faith,” allowing platforms to filter out those from online trolls or spam. Revisions also give companies more times to respond to complaints requiring “extraordinary investigation.”

Civil Liability ‘Fatal Flaw’

While NetChoice has called PACT Act “one of the few serious” Section 230 bills, the tech trade group still criticized its “fatal flaw” of holding tech companies liable for following federal civil laws. Currently, Section 230 holds companies liable for following federal criminal laws.

“By subjecting websites to federal civil liability, the bill is far more radical than it appears and would lead to legitimate speech being removed from the internet as websites take a better-safe-than-sorry approach in taking down user posts,” Chris Marchese, counsel at NetChoice, which represents Facebook Inc., Google LLC, and Twitter Inc., said in an emailed response.

The Internet Association, which represents a broader group of tech companies in addition to Facebook, Google, and Twitter, also criticized the civil liability expansion, as well as the bill’s impact on small companies. The group called for additional safeguards in the court order process.

Digital rights advocacy group Access Now said the bill doesn’t do enough to stop online civil rights harms. “We still have work to do to root out damaging content online, with an eye towards protecting marginalized communities,” Eric Null, the group’s U.S. policy manager, said in a statement.

The PACT Act joins the SAFE TECH Act (S. 299), introduced in February by Sens. Mark Warner (D-Va.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), and Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), as measures targeting Section 230 in the current Congress. SAFE TECH seeks to hold tech companies liable for content falling within four categories: civil rights laws; antitrust laws; stalking, harassment, or intimidation laws; and international human rights laws. It also would hold companies liable for wrongful death actions, meaning families could sue platforms that may have contributed to a person’s death.

Next week will be the first time the tech companies will appear before lawmakers since the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, which fed dissatisfaction with tech’s liability shield.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee has called Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Alphabet Inc. CEO Sundar Pichai, and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey to testify about misinformation and disinformation on their platforms at a March 25 hearing.

To contact the reporter on this story: Rebecca Kern in Washington at rkern@bgov.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Zachary Sherwood at zsherwood@bgov.com

Top