Sundar Pichai, Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg will remotely testify before the US Senate on Wednesday on whether Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act — which shields companies from the liability of the content on their online platforms — needs to be changed to meet current challenges in internet governance. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey is going to bat for retaining Section 230, calling it “the Internet’s most important law for free speech and safety”. 

The hearings carry import to the internet even in India, as Indian politicians have taken cue from their Western counterparts in the past. Remember how it didn’t take long for India’s right-wing to accuse Twitter of bias against them?

What will the committee examine? Whether Section 230 has “outlived its usefulness in today’s digital age”, the legislative proposals to modernise the law, and increasing Big Tech’s accountability in moderating content. Additionally, it will also look at the impact of ad platforms on local journalism and consumer privacy. “The hearing will provide an opportunity to discuss the unintended consequences of Section 230’s liability shield and how best to preserve the internet as a forum for open discourse,” the senate said. 

Republican Senator Roger Wicker, chairman of the committee on commerce, science, and transportation will convene the hearings.

A lesson on Section 230: Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, 1996, provides safe harbour to internet intermediaries from liability on what their users post. It is why thousands of videos can be uploaded to YouTube per day, why Facebook allows millions of posts, why blogs and Reddit allow comments, and why ISPs allow users to create their own websites. Section 230 allows platforms to impose their own community standards and in “good faith” block content that it may consider objectionable, whether or not such speech is constitutionally protected or the law calls “Good Samaritan blocking”. 

“Were Twitter to lose the protections I wrote into law, within 24 hours its potential liabilities would be many multiples of its assets and its stock would be worthless,” Ron Wyden, among the lawmakers how drafted the law wrote in 2018

With Donald Trump’s May 2020 executive order, this provision is under threat. In India too, safe harbour protections under Section 79 of the Information Technology Act are also under threat of erosion. The Indian government wants intermediaries to be more hands-on, and proactively monitor content and also build capability to trace originators of content. 

What Dorsey’s defense will be

In his opening remarks, Dorsey calls Section 230 is “the Internet’s most important law for free speech and safety” and changing it would remove critical free speech online and impede Twitter’s collective ability to address harmful content and protect people online. He said the primary issue here is earning user trust, which can be establish by being open about how Twitter moderates content, by having fair appeals processes, “empowering” algorithmic choice and protecting privacy. 

  • Companies like Twitter should public their moderation process, and be transparency about how cases are reported and reviewed, how decisions are made, and tools used to moderate.
  • Dorsey cited Twitter’s transparency reports where it discloses moderation data.
  • He will point to allowing users to toggle to reverse chronological timelines instead of what Twitter’s algorithms consider relevant for the users. It gives people “more control” and provides transparency into algorithms.
  • Twitter also protects privacy by providing pseudonymous accounts and letting people control who sees their tweets.
  • Dorsey will also state that decisions are made without political viewpoints or affiliation — in defense of the consistent allegation by Conservatives that Twitter and other social media platforms censor pro-right speech. 

Dorsey will also bring in an antitrust perspective by arguing that Section 230 has enabled new companies, including “small ones seeded with an idea” to grow and compete with incumbents. Sweeping regulations can sometimes entrench large companies since they can scale resources to meet legal compliance, leaving behind a handful of giant and well-funded tech companies. Competition is a concern for Twitter because it “does not have the same breadth of interwoven products or market size as compared to our industry peers” — an obvious dig at both Google and Facebook. 

Read more: On Trump’s Executive Order regarding platforms and what it means for India