Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s take on how Congress should update internet regulations is falling flat on Capitol Hill, where a slew of lawmakers said Wednesday that the tech giant’s plan for battling harmful content is a self-serving gambit to entrench its power online.
In written testimony for a House hearing on Thursday, Zuckerberg proposed that Congress require online platforms to have a system to identify and take down certain illegal content, and revoke key liability protections if they don’t. The decades-old legal shield, known as Section 230, protects digital platforms from lawsuits over how they police user content and what material they host on their services.
Democrats and Republicans alike have called for scaling back or revoking those protections amid a barrage of criticisms of how tech giants like Facebook and YouTube have handled everything from political misinformation to vaccine hoaxes to extremist content online.
But lawmakers on both sides of the aisle on Wednesday denounced Zuckerberg’s proposal as a political sideshow and a bad faith attempt to give the giant a competitive edge.
“Mark Zuckerberg knows that rolling back section 230 will cement Facebook’s position as the dominant social media company and make it vastly harder for new startups to challenge his cash cow,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who co-wrote Section 230 as a member of the House in the 1990s and has resisted efforts in Congress to pare back the law.
Others at the forefront of efforts to revamp the legal shield also bristled at Zuckerberg’s suggestion for what the legislative fix should look like.
Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), who has proposed rolling back the protections to address concerns about alleged anti-conservative bias by tech companies, called Zuckerberg’s proposal self-serving. And she said Facebook should brace for broader changes — whether it likes them or not.
“Section 230 reform will hit Facebook regardless of what these self-interested Silicon Valley CEOs want,” Blackburn said. “Big Tech only wants reform when it bolsters their power at the expense of competitors.”
Reps. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) and Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.), who on Wednesday reintroduced legislation to make companies liable for amplifying certain types of illegal content like civil rights abuses and foreign terrorism, told reporters on a call that Congress shouldn’t fall for Zuckerberg’s gambit.
Malinowski said Congress should focus on making Facebook more legally responsible for the way it amplifies and boosts illicit material, rather than for hosting the content itself.
“That is a classic example of Facebook hoping that we missed the point," he said. "They want us to focus on putting out fires, and not on the fact that their product is flammable."
Zuckerberg first embraced the idea of updating Section 230 at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing in October, where he suggested lawmakers consider proposals to strengthen “industry collaboration” and to boost transparency about how platforms make decisions on user content. But his remarks in testimony made public Wednesday were the most detailed yet.
The issue has emerged as one of the major fronts in the battle between Washington and Silicon Valley, with lawmakers threatening to weaken or remove the protections altogether if tech companies failed to address concerns about their content policies and practices.
Zuckerberg and some prominent tech figures — including from Microsoft, Match Group and Salesforce — have shifted from largely opposing changes to suggesting and endorsing proposals they hope will sway lawmakers. Facebook’s testimony marks one of the most detailed roadmaps offered by the industry to date.
Still, House Energy & Commerce Chair Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), whose panel is hosting Thursday’s session, said Zuckerberg’s proposal seemed more about swaying public opinion than real change.
“He keeps saying he wants reform, but he’s so vague," Pallone said. "It almost seems like he wants to give the impression that he wants reform, but when you get to specifics, it’s not at all clear.”
Smaller platforms and other tech companies including Twitter and Google, whose CEOs Jack Dorsey and Sundar Pichai will testify alongside Zuckerberg on Thursday, have voiced concern that weakening Section 230 protections could disproportionately harm smaller businesses.
“The law’s flexibility has allowed companies of all sizes to flourish and tackle the harms that are unique to their platforms,” Internet Works, a coalition of smaller companies including Reddit, Tripadvisor and Etsy, said in a statement Wednesday.
Zuckerberg appeared to nod to the concerns of smaller businesses in his testimony, suggesting that any new requirements for Section 230 immunity could be “proportionate to platform size."
Facebook’s suggested changes also resemble aspects of the EARN IT Act, S. 3398 (116), a bipartisan proposal to pare back Section 230 from Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). That legislation would create a commission to craft voluntary best practices for companies to follow to curb child porn.
Blumenthal, however, flatly rejected Zuckerberg’s idea, calling it a "feigned figleaf that does nothing to protect victims or require real changes for Big Tech."
"I’ve seen this playbook countless times before: Facebook, having spent years apologizing while doing little, has read the room, sees that real change is on the horizon, and is now proposing meek and mild tweaks around the edges that do nothing but protect its bottom line," he said.
A Facebook spokesperson declined comment on the lawmakers’ remarks.
Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), whose congressional district includes parts of Silicon Valley, said he isn’t ready to endorse Zuckerberg’s proposal, but that it was “constructive” for Facebook to be engaging with Congress on efforts to amend Section 230, rather than rejecting them.
And Khanna said he’s not sweating concerns about Facebook steering the debate in their favor.
“There’s absolutely no way that Facebook is going to have anything more than one voice out of a multiplicity of voices in a very complex conversation of Section 230, so any idea that they’re going to be able to write Section 230 reforms is a non-starter,” he said.
View original post