At a March hearing in the House Energy & Commerce Subcommittee that put Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Google CEO Sundar Pichai, and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey in the hot seats, Representative Cathy McMorris-Rodgers, R-WA and the Ranking Member of the Energy & Commerce Committee, used her opening remarks to bemoan the “big tech battles” she says she fights in her household “every day”. Referring to her children, she framed her family’s relationship to technology as “a battle for their development, a battle for their mental health and ultimately a battle for their safety,” recounting multiple instances of teenagers in her community who have been driven to self harm due to interactions on social media.
“You haven’t done enough. Big Tech has failed to be good stewards of your platforms,” said McMorris-Rodgers. “What will it take for your business model to stop harming children?”
Cathy McMorris Rodgers had just given the best anti-big tech statement in any hearing I’ve seen from a Republican, focusing almost entirely on children and teenagers. Truly extraordinary work.— Matt Stoller (@matthewstoller) March 25, 2021
On Wednesday McMorris-Rodgers led an announcement from House Energy & Commerce Committee Republicans of 30 draft bills for discussion aimed at demanding various forms of accountability from technology platforms, including amendments to limit liability protections afforded by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, requirements for reporting on phenomena such as cyberbullying, child pornography and the sale of counterfeit products, and other odds and ends- such as a proposal to require social media platforms and other online services to contribute to the FCC Universal Service Fund to help provide internet access to areas with poor internet adoption and coverage. The proposals hew closely to an agenda Energy & Commerce Republicans released in April.
The most remarked upon bill in the package is sponsored by McMorris-Rodgers and Jim Jordan (R-OH). It seeks to amend Section 230 to reduce the immunity it affords online platforms and to “require internet platform companies to implement and maintain reasonable and user-friendly appeals processes for decisions about content on the platforms of such companies and to submit quarterly filings to the Federal Trade Commission regarding content enforcement decisions and appeals,” as the draft reads. Other bills in the package that seek to amend Section 230 take aim at particular issues, such as:
- Bob Latta (R-OH) introduced a draft bill that would exclude companies deemed to be ‘bad samaritans’ with regard to the promotion, sale or facilitation of illegal goods or activities.
- Neal Dunn (R-OH) introduced a draft bill that would exclude parties known to be affiliated with the Chinese Communist Party from Section 230 protections.
- Dan Crenshaw (R-TX) introduced a draft bill that would limit Section 230 protections for platforms found to be acting against content or users “based on racial, sexual, political affiliation or ethnic grounds”.
Republican concern around ‘censorship’ is clearly a driving motivation for the raft of bills. A potpourri of other ills are addressed, including Section 230 amendments offered with regard to cyberbullying (Tim Walberg, R-MI), doxxing (Jeff Duncan, R-SC), “foreign terrorism content” (Gary Palmer, R-AL), and child pornography (Gus Bilirakis, R-FL).
Three of the proposed draft bills take aim at commerce on big technology platforms, including amendments to Section 230 related to the sale of counterfeit products (Richard Hudson, R-NC), and the sale of drugs (David McKinley, R-WV). One draft bill, introduced by Kelly Armstrong (R-ND), would appear to amend Section 230 to remove liability protection for a company that participates in the distribution of goods, “to preserve claims relating to product liability, for any instance in which an interactive computer service has physical possession or control of a product at issue.”
Another set of draft bills is aimed at demanding transparency around content moderation practices and creating liability for companies that fail to comply. These bills- which address issues such as child pornography, cyberbullying, child trafficking, terrorist content, doxxing, and revenge porn, require companies to disclose various aspects of their efforts to curb these abuses, including naming an officer responsible for the particular harm, defining a process to develop and enforce preventative measures, doing employee training on the issue, and introducing a requirement to monitor, evaluate, adjust these policies. In addition, to remain compliant, companies must put their policies forward to the FTC including an opportunity for public comment. A bill related to cyberbullying put forward by John Joyce (R-PA) would require platforms to maintain a mechanism for parents to report cyberbullying.
One of the more ambitious draft bills, put forward by Bill Johnson (R-OH), would require platforms to do biannual filings to the FTC around mental health impacts of the platforms. The bill requires the company to report on such impacts “for users who are under the age of 13, users who are age 13 or older but under the age of 18, and users who are age 18 or older” and it also requires public disclosure of “the results of any studies or research such company has conducted or contracted with third parties to conduct on the role and impact such company’s products or services have on the mental health of users”. It is paired with a draft bill from Neal Dunn (R-FL) that would require the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to do an educational campaign on the “mental health risks related to children’s use of social media platforms,” in consultation with “technology industry representatives, academic researchers, and consumer advocacy groups”. A draft bill from Mark Wayne Mullin, R-OK, would require the FTC to do a public education campaign to raise awareness about resources available to people “when their safety and security have been violated online.”
The legislative package was lauded by Republican FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr, who praised another proposal from Mullin “to require the Federal Communications Commission to conduct a study and submit to Congress a report examining the feasibility of funding the Universal Service Fund through contributions supplied by edge providers, and for other purposes,” an idea that Carr has advanced and that FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel called “intriguing.”
This is a bold and comprehensive set of bills that would rein in Big Tech—ending their abusive practices while promoting free speech on the Internet.— Brendan Carr (@BrendanCarrFCC) July 28, 2021
I applaud the Commerce Committee’s Republican Leader @cathymcmorris and her @HouseCommerce colleagues on their strong leadership. https://t.co/15KkeIFHpu pic.twitter.com/1vCIzK72HJ
One of the more convoluted bills put forward is from John Curtis (R-UT), and would require social media companies to verify user identities. While it provides for a waiver scenario, it also would restrict certain services- such as algorithmic filtering- to any unverified user.
It is unclear whether any of these drafts will be formally introduced, or what their prospects might be in the current Congress, in which Republicans are in the minority.
A spreadsheet will links to the draft bills and some simple explanatory annotations is here. This piece will be updated.
Justin Hendrix is CEO and Editor of Tech Policy Press, a new nonprofit media venture concerned with the intersection of technology and democracy. Previously, he was Executive Director of NYC Media Lab. He spent over a decade at The Economist in roles including Vice President, Business Development & Innovation. He is an associate research scientist and adjunct professor at NYU Tandon School of Engineering. Opinions expressed here are his own.