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Democrats prefer 'scalpel' over 'jackhammer' to reform key U.S. internet law

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Big Tech’s decisions to block some posts and videos while letting other content viewed as inflammatory proliferate have drawn the ire of Republicans and Democrats alike, raising the prospect that a 24-year-old U.S. law that fostered the internet’s explosion will be pared back.

FILE PHOTO: Facebook, Google and Twitter logos are seen in this combination photo from Reuters files. REUTERS

While many Republicans call for the repeal of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, Democrats would prefer targeted, surgical revision of the law protecting Facebook and Twitter from being sued for content posted by users.

President Donald Trump and top Republicans, angered by what they allege is tech companies’ censorship of conservative ideas, say the legal shield has outlived its usefulness. That thinking was on full display at a hearing held to discuss the law on Wednesday.

Democrats have also taken aim at the law because they claim it fails to tackle widespread misinformation and hate. But they argue the law is important to free speech online and want a more deliberate and moderate approach to reform.

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has called for “revoking” the law, but many believe he will be more receptive to ideas from congressional Democrats if he wins the election.

Multiple Democratic lawmakers said in interviews that they oppose repeal of Section 230, which allows companies to take down or leave material on their platforms without the risk of facing lawsuits.

“Repealing it outright is not viable,” Representative Anna Eshoo, a Democrat from California said. She has introduced legislation to remove tech companies’ liability protections if their algorithms amplify harmful, radicalizing content that leads to offline violence. She advocated using “a scalpel instead of a jackhammer to reform the critical statute.”

The approach has also found support from Virginia’s Democratic Senator Joe Manchin, according to a staffer. Manchin’s bill, which is co-sponsored by Republican John Cornyn, aims to stop the sale of opioids and illicit drugs online by amending 230 protections. It requires companies to report suspicious activity to law enforcement or be held liable for that failure.

An aide to Senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon who originally co-authored Section 230, said the senator urges caution on steps that could limit free speech online. “He isn’t saying no one can ever change a word of Section 230, but that politicians need to be very careful when it comes to tinkering with foundational laws around speech and the internet,” the aide said.

Meanwhile tech trade groups over the past year began an aggressive lobbying effort against changing the law and view calls for repeal as draconian.

“I do expect the more extreme statements on wanting a full repeal to die down... the Democrats are walking that kind of rhetoric back,” said Carl Szabo, general counsel for Netchoice - a trade group that counts Google, Facebook and Twitter among its members.

A MODERATE APPROACH

There is an array of proposals on Capitol Hill. Most of the bills that have found Democratic sponsors seek to change protections for harmful conduct on online platforms like crime, rather than on user speech.

Legislation from Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat, and Republican Senator Lindsey Graham goes after online child pornography. Companies that do not detect such images would lose their 230 immunity. The legislation, however, has been criticized by civil rights groups as infringing privacy of ordinary users. reut.rs/3munhZA

Democratic Senator Brian Schatz and Senate No. 2 Republican John Thune propose another bill that would require platforms to explain their content screening practices in everyday language, notify users of content rejection within 14 days and allow appeals.

Matt Perault, director at the Duke University’s Center for Science and Technology Policy, said the U.S. election has given momentum to calls for revoking Section 230, which would radically alter the nature of online expression.

“No matter the outcome of the election, I think Section 230 reform will be on the agenda next Congress,” Representative Eshoo said.

Reporting by Nandita Bose in Washington; Editing by Chris Sanders and Cynthia Osterman

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