Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has told the US government that it should update Section 230 to make sure “it’s working as intended”, however tried to make a strong argument against it. In his written testimony to the US Senate’s Commerce committee, Zuckerberg said Section 230 allowed the Facebook platform to police content without the threat threat of constant litigation. At the same time, he admitted that politicians were “unhappy” with the status quo, and the people want platforms to be held accountable.

Zuckerberg, Google CEO Sundar Pichai and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, are scheduled to testify remotely before the committee later today. The committee is examining whether Section 230 — which protects internet platforms from legal liabilities — has “outlived its usefulness in today’s digital age”, and deliberate on increasing Big Tech’s accountability in moderating content.

What exactly is Section 230? It protects internet companies from being held legally liable for any illegal content (such as hate speech, child pornography and so on) that users post on their platforms. For instance, if a Facebook user posts hate speech on their profile, they would be legally prosecuted against, not Facebook. These protections, called the safe harbour protections, allow companies to operate with a free hand, without worrying about legal compliance. They also allow the companies to enforce their own community guidelines to take down objectionable content. Essentially, social media companies are not treated as publishers of this content, unlike in the case of newspapers or other news outlets.

The hearings assume international significance, including in India where there is increasing discussion about repealing safe harbours protections afforded to internet intermediaries. Any precedent set by the US will likely make up the government’s mind on which direction it wants to proceed in.

Zuckerberg measured defence of Section 230

Section 230 protects free speech: The Facebook CEO will argue in his testimony that Section 230 encourages free speech and expression. He argued that if platforms a repeal of the protections will only make companies want to censor more content to avoid legal risk.

“Without Section 230, platforms could potentially be held liable for everything people say. Platforms would likely censor more content to avoid legal risk and would be less likely to invest in technologies that enable people to express themselves in new ways.” — Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook CEO

It allows platforms the freedom to moderate content: Zuckerberg said that without Section 230, platforms could face liability for even basic moderation such as removing hate speech and harassment.

The Facebook CEO argued that Section 230 essentially made possible the “fight for democracy around the world” including in movements like the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo.

However…

Zuckerberg admitted that there was an ongoing debate about Section 230 in which people of “all political persuasions” are unhappy with the status quo. Though indirect, this is a reference to attacks on Section 230 by both Republican and Democratic politicians in the US. President Donald Trump, a Republican, and his opponent, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden have called for a repeal of safe harbour protections, though for different reasons.

The Facebook CEO admitted that people wanted more accountability from social media platforms. Hence, he said, the US government should update the law to make sure it’s working as intended.

“Section 230 made it possible for every major internet service to be built and ensured important values like free expression and openness were part of how platforms operate. Changing it is a significant decision. However, I believe Congress should update the law to make sure it’s working as intended” — Mark Zuckerberg (emphasis added)

Zuckerberg said he looked forward to a meaningful dialogue about how the law could be updated to deal with the problems faced by society in the present day. “At Facebook, we don’t think tech companies should be making so many decisions about these important issues alone […] We stand ready to work with Congress on what regulation could look like in these areas.”

Zuckerberg made one more attempt to convince the committee to hear out all stakeholders, perhaps asking it to not make any hurried changes to Section 230. “I would encourage this Committee and other stakeholders to make sure that any changes do not have unintended consequences that stifle expression or impede innovation.”

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