Now It's The Democrats Turn To Destroy The Open Internet: Mark Warner's 230 Reform Bill Is A Dumpster Fire Of Cluelessness

from the what-the-fuck-is-this-I-don't-even... dept

For the past few months we've been seeing a ton of terrible/ridiculous/awful/unconstitutional bills coming from mostly Republicans to try to wipe out or undermine Section 230. Most of those were focused on trying to force websites to do less content moderation. Now that the Democrats are back in power, it appears we're going to be getting the opposite. Senator Mark Warner has introduced his new Section 230 reform bill, called the SAFE TECH Act ("Safeguarding Against Fraud, Exploitation, Threats, Extremism, and Consumer Harms Act" co-sponsored by Senators Mazie Hirono and Amy Klobuchar), and it is one of the worst Section 230 bills I've seen. It is difficult to explain just how bad this bill is concisely, because it has so many bad ideas crammed into one single bill. It's as if none of these three Senators or their staff spoke to anyone who actually understands how the internet works, or how content moderation/trust and safety works. It's stunning in the ignorance it displays.

About the only good thing I'll say about it, is that (unlike most bills) at least Warner released a redline version to show how it would actually (massively) change Section 230. He also put out an incredibly disingenuous FAQ that flat out lies about... nearly everything. We'll go through that in a bit.

Basically, this bill takes nearly every single idea that people who want there to be less speech online have had, and dumped it all into one bill. There's a lot in there, and nearly all of it is bad. Last week I wrote about a draft bill in the House that suggested carving out civil rights law from Section 230. In my analysis of that bill, I noted that it appeared to come from a well meaning place, but was simply misguided. This bill, which also includes a carveout for civil rights law, does not come from a well meaning place. The drafters of the bill are either malicious or ignorant. It's not a good look for Senators Warner, Hirono, and Klobuchar.

A key thing to recognize is that it's obvious that the drafters of this bill believe the myth that 230 protects "big" tech companies. The bill is written as if it is only talking about Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. Warner handwaves away the idea that the bill would destroy smaller companies in his announcement by ridiculously (and against all evidence to the contrary) saying that startups are too small to sue, so it would only be used against larger companies.

The most devious and nefarious part of this is that the bill effectively wipes out Section 230 protections for the entire internet while pretending it's just a minor change. This bill is about as close to a full repeal of Section 230 as you can get realistically. In the press release about the bill, Warner claims that it's just a tweak to 230 because "these changes to Section 230 do not guarantee that platforms will be held liable in all, or even most, cases," but that would also be true with repeal. Because most things that people want to blame on internet websites are not actually violations of the law. And, assuming a form of distributor liability is what the courts decide on, that would mean websites wouldn't be liable for most things on their site anyway -- but would result in long and costly legal battles before they could prove that.

And this bill guarantees the same exact thing. The biggest, most consequential change, is that it takes the famous "26 words," which are Section (c)(1) of the current law, removes the protections entirely if money exchanges hands, and then changes it from an immunity to merely "an affirmative defense." That may not seem like much, but it basically wipes out all of the actual benefits of 230.

Saying that you don't get (c)(1) if money exchanges hands, basically wipes out Section 230 for many, many services. All web hosting would no longer be protected by Section 230. If, as many people have been demanding, social media offers up paid options (say, to remove ads), doing so would remove their 230 protections. Incredibly, this bill is coming from the same people who have been saying that Facebook and Twitter should offer a "paid version" without ads or tracking -- but, under this bill, if they do that, they'd lose 230! Incredibly, under this bill, the two cases that inspired Section 230 -- the CompuServe case and the Prodigy case -- would not be eligible for 230 protections, because both were paid services!

The switch from (c)(1) being an immunity to being "an affirmative defense" in which the website "has a burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence" basically erases the key procedural benefits of Section 230 -- which is that it gets cases tossed right up front. This gets somewhat deep in the weeds of civil procedure, but having (c)(1) as an immunity allows companies to file a relatively straightforward motion to dismiss upfront, without having to do a lot of expensive legal work, and argue that, because of 230, there is no legitimate claim in the complaint, even if everything in that complaint is accurate. This is the key benefit of 230 in protecting websites.

But by making it an affirmative defense, which the website has to prove by a preponderance of evidence, you've just made everything a lot more expensive and it will take a lot longer to deal with. Not only are you going to have to pay a lot of expensive lawyers a lot more money to make a preponderance of the evidence claim, many courts find that such determinations are issues of fact, not law, meaning that they need to go to a jury. If a case goes to trial and has a jury, you're talking about it costing at least a million dollars for any company, and probably a lot more.

This wipes out the entire benefit of Section 230 by itself. Most companies, of course, will then try to avoid just having to face this by quickly taking down anything even remotely questionable or anything that people complain about. And they'll still get sued. This bill would absolutely destroy most of the open web.

The second massive change, is that it would exclude Section 230 entirely from "injunctive relief" claims for failing to remove "harmful" content. In other words, this would allow a bevy of lawsuits from people who just want something taken offline (and aren't asking for monetary damages), that they will claim creates "harm" to them, and the websites can no longer respond with 230. While supporters of this bill might argue that filing such a lawsuit alone would be expensive, so this wouldn't be abused, that ignores how frequently we've seen especially the rich and powerful try to use any legal means possible to remove content they dislike from the internet. This clause is like a free shot for the rich and powerful to silence criticism. It's like a pro-SLAPP clause!

The bill then adds a bunch of other carveouts from 230: civil rights law, antitrust, harassment, stalking, human rights law and wrongful death. As we already discussed, while it may sound good to say this can't be used to block civil rights cases, in actual practice a bunch of recent "civil rights" cases have involved white supremacists, out-and-out misogynists, and other terrible people claiming that their civil rights were violated by being kicked off of platforms. Enabling such lawsuits seems incredibly short sighted.

This bill is dangerous.

And what's truly obnoxious about it is that in the FAQ about it, Mark Warner pretends otherwise.

Q: Won’t removing Section 230 immunity bring back the perverse incentive structure Section 230 was meant to address and actually lead to less content moderation?

A: No. Section 230 effectively cut off the development of case law for the past 25 years based on the flawed reasoning of a single state court judge. By peeling back Section 230 immunity for particularly serious harms—such as civil rights violations, stalking, and harassment—internet platforms will be incentivized to ramp up their address problems in these areas, problems that have otherwise been allowed to fester and grow without exposure to potential liability. These reforms do not render ICS providers liable for all – or even most – third-party content, including where they engage in moderation activity. Nor do these reforms alter the already-steep hill plaintiffs must already climb. Rather, these reforms allow victims an opportunity to seek redress where they can potentially show that a platform has directly contributed to their injury.

This is magic wand thinking. Oh, if we just make websites potentially liable for what people do on them, won't the websites magically fix these societal level problems? No, that's not what happens. Instead, smaller websites decide it's not worth the hassle at all and stop accepting 3rd party content, and larger companies just get more aggressive in policing all sorts of protected speech. Would a "#MeToo" situation ever be allowed to happen if this law was in place? No fucking way. Harvey Weinstein and all sorts of powerful rich men would sue the shit out of Facebook and Twitter to stop that.

The final sentence above is the most pernicious of all. Section 230 already does not apply if the platform contributed to the injury. It already doesn't apply if the platform helped to create the injurious content. What this bill does is not allow for that which is already allowed. It completely wipes most 230 protections off the map.

Q: Will making internet platforms liable for third-party content lead internet platforms to overreach in their content moderation efforts thereby chilling speech from the very groups you’re looking to protect?

A: No. The SAFE TECH Act was developed in partnership with, and has the strong support of, a wide array of civil rights groups. We need to recognize that threats, harassment, and targeted intimidation silence the voices of far too many racial minorities, women, and other marginalized groups by driving them from social media and other online platforms. Under the status quo, platforms have been able to ignore these harms – even where their continued inaction, and even their product design, contributes to these injustices. As these online harms spread to the real world—in places like Charlottesville, Kenosha, and at the U.S. Capitol—their negative impact has only become more unmistakable. The SAFE TECH Act simply allows victims an opportunity to hold platforms accountable when their deliberate inaction or product design decisions produce real-world harm, making the online world a more open and welcoming environment for all to participate.

What?!? Note that they don't say that the bill was developed with actual content moderation experts. To say that this wouldn't be used to stifle and chill speech from vulnerable groups and people is ludicrous. Of course it will. Everything about the bill is designed in a way that opens it up to abuse by the rich, powerful and privileged. Everything about the bill allows them to file costly lawsuits (or threaten to do so) and pressure websites to pull down all sorts of criticism.

That Warner and his co-sponsors deny this suggests that they have absolutely no understanding about how any of this works.

Q: Will exposing small tech companies and startups to liability and increased litigation costs drive them out of business and simply entrench the dominant player (e.g., Google, Facebook)?

A: This concern is gravely exaggerated. As an initial matter, smaller players do not have the reach of the Googles and Facebooks of the world and, as a result, are less likely to cause significant harm. Moreover, potential plaintiffs are unlikely to bring an action against a small tech company or startups out of fear being able to collect sufficient damages to make the effort and cost of litigation worthwhile. Indeed, in many cases plaintiffs’ attorneys would not even take these cases given the low likelihood of meaningful damages. In addition, a string of judicial decisions on standing requirements over the last 10 years, along with a range of tort reforms enacted by state legislatures (including anti-SLAPP laws to penalize frivolous or bad faith lawsuits), have significantly altered the legal landscape since Section 230 was enacted in 1996.

More importantly, things like protecting civil rights and preventing harassment should be built into internet platforms by design. Today’s online giants claim that their massive scale makes it too difficult to effectively moderate content – a social cost borne by users and vulnerable communities. Had these companies been exposed to potential liability from their inception, in many cases they would have designed their platforms

This is... again... completely disconnected from reality. There are so many stories of smaller platforms being sued for 3rd party speech. Hell, I was sued for third party speech and protected by 230. Under this bill, that case would have been a lot more expensive and almost certainly would have bankrupted us. Many of these lawsuits are not about "collecting sufficient damages" but about forcing the small tech company or startup to have to waste all their money on the lawsuit. How disconnected from reality are these Senators?

And, sure, it might not be as bad if there were strong anti-SLAPP laws in every state and a strong federal anti-SLAPP law, but we don't have that. In fact, many courts won't even apply state anti-SLAPP laws in federal court. At best, I'd say maybe 20% of cases that should be protected by anti-SLAPP laws have access to them. So to say "oh, no big deal, anti-SLAPP will cover it" is again nonsense.

That final paragraph is also completely disconnected from reality. This country has spent decades trying to solve for systemic racism and civil rights violations, and we're still failing. The government has failed in so many ways on this, and now Warner's saying "oh, tech companies can magically solve this if only they could be sued." This is fantasy land thinking.

Q: What is the scope of the carve-out for paid content? Does it cover anything beyond paid advertisements?

A: The SAFE TECH Act makes clear that Section 230 immunity does not apply to any paid content. This would include advertisements as well as things like marketplace listings.

Uh, no. From the language of the bill itself, it says:

"... except to the extent the provider or user has accepted payment to make the speech available..."

That certainly looks like it applies to all paid content. And, even worse, to things like web hosting. Or if Facebook or Twitter ever offered accounts where you pay to remove ads. Or, hell, to us on Techdirt, where some of our community have paid to support us, and we provide them extra features. Based on this, if any of our financial supporters (a key source of revenue for us) says anything that we get sued over, we can no longer claim 230 protections against it. That's ludicrous. Not only would we have to shut down our comments, we'd likely be unable to let people support us directly any more (meaning we'd likely shut down entirely).

Q: Will the SAFE TECH Act break the internet?

A: No! The internet was a far different place when Section 230 was passed. The scope, influence, and impact of modern internet platforms were unimaginable in 1996. Like all regulation, Section 230 must be updated to address the current state of affairs – including the unintended consequences of the law. The SAFE TECH Act brings Section 230 into the modern age by addressing those areas in which the law has been abused by platforms—such as civil rights, stalking, and harassment—in a targeted way. It is also important to remember, that even with the changes proposed in the SAFE TECH Act, Section 230 does not impose liability on anyone. There must still be a violation of some law and plaintiffs must still prove causation, harm, and damages. And the application of that law to an internet platform still cannot run afoul of the First Amendment.

To say this after misunderstanding (1) how content moderation works, (2) how civil liability works, and (3) the nature of vexatious lawsuits works... is just astounding. This bill would absolutely gut much of the internet. Smaller websites would likely have to shut down key services (and may have to shut down entirely). A massive wave of ambulance chasing, SLAPP suits would come next. Trolls and racists would flip the law on its head to sue companies. This would be an utter disaster.

And tragically, reporters are falling for Warner's framing. The Washington Post's article on this claims that the bill "preserves the thrust of Section 230." It absolutely does no such thing. It guts every bit of 230 to its core.

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Filed Under: affirmative defense, amy klobuchar, antitrust, civil rights, mark warner, mazie hirono, preponderance of the evidence, section 230

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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 5 Feb 2021 @ 1:13pm

    Re: Re: Honeymoon period

    May I remind that in a world of publication controlled by gate keepers, that is the world before the Internet, very few people got their words published, and most were kept silent. That is a world that suites politicians, because they can get their words published, and not have the public argue back.

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