Tech group urges DOJ to take sides in Supreme Court’s Section 230 bout
In a letter Monday to Attorney General Merrick Garland shared exclusively with The Technology 202, the Chamber of Progress urged the Justice Department to file a brief pushing back on calls to hold platforms accountable for amplifying harmful content.
The Supreme Court last month agreed to hear Gonzalez v. Google, which will consider whether the tech giant is liable for allegedly recommending terrorist content to users through algorithms on its subsidiary video-sharing platform YouTube.
For decades, Section 230 has broadly shielded digital services from lawsuits for hosting and making “good faith” efforts to moderate objectionable content. But it’s increasingly come under attacks from advocates and public officials who say it has allowed the tech giants to escape responsibility for their decisions policing content.
Legal experts say the case, the first time the high court will directly weigh in on the law, could have sweeping ramifications for how companies handle user-generated content.
In its missive, the Chamber of Progress called on the Justice Department to file “a brief in support of the defendants,” which is Google.
The group argued that Section 230 also allows platforms to provide critical services to users, including related to medical services, and that it was crucial for the court not to limit the protections “to ensure the continued availability of lifesaving reproductive resources.”
“Should the Court curb Section 230’s protections for algorithmic curation, online services would face extreme threats of liability for promoting lifesaving reproductive health information, otherwise criminalized by state antiabortion laws,” the group wrote in a letter co-signed by Advocates for Youth, a D.C.-based nonprofit that advocates on sexual health issues.
The Chamber of Progress lists Google, Meta, Amazon, Apple and dozens of other tech companies as “corporate partners” on its website, but says none of the companies “have a vote on our work.” (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
The Justice Department did not return a request for comment.
The group’s letter sets up a test for the Biden administration, which has at times both defended and attacked Section 230 protections.
As a candidate, President Biden tore into the law, saying it should be immediately “revoked” and that companies like Facebook should be submitted to “civil liability” if they cause harm.
Since becoming president, Biden has said little on the topic, but the White House has tempered his call for a full repeal and pushed instead for “fundamental reforms to Section 230.” But to date, Biden has yet to take any public action to push for changes to the law.
The Justice Department has its own history weighing in on the law.
Under former president Donald Trump, the Justice Department urged Congress to pass new legislation to open tech companies up to greater liability for a range of harmful content, including terrorist content and child sexual abuse material. The efforts, which also targeted claims of “censorship” by Silicon Valley, was panned by top Democrats as overbroad.
But under Biden, the Justice Department has at times waded into cases in defense of Section 230, including to affirm the constitutionality of the law in a lawsuit filed by Trump against Twitter for permanently banning his account. (Twitter, now under new ownership, reinstated Trump on Saturday.)
It’s unclear, however, if the Justice Department will take sides in Gonzalez v. Google, which stems from a lawsuit filed by the family of a student killed during the 2015 Islamic State terrorist attack in Paris alleging YouTube “aided and abetted” the extremist group online.
The letter is the latest instance of the Chamber of Progress challenging the Justice Department to take steps aimed at protecting users after the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade.
In July, the group sent a letter warning the Justice Department that it was undermining digital privacy protections and putting those who seek abortion at risk through its legal arguments, as we reported. The trade group argued the precedent could be seized by prosecutors in red states to scoop up user data and target abortions.
NTIA calls for ‘strong privacy rules’ in FTC rulemaking
The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) is calling for the Federal Trade Commission to publish rules that “eschew consent-dominated privacy governance in favor of data minimization and purpose limitation requirements,” and that expand protections for “harms that disproportionately impact vulnerable populations,” according to comments published this morning. NTIA advises President Biden on telecommunication policy, and the FTC could use its input to craft new regulations.
“Strong privacy rules will help make the internet a better place for everyone,” Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information Alan Davidson said in a statement. “NTIA is calling for rules that stop the unnecessary and harmful collection and use of personal information.”
The NTIA comments came alongside a deadline for feedback on proposed rulemaking for FTC regulations on “commercial surveillance and data security practices that are prevalent and unfair or deceptive.”
Twitter reinstates Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s personal account
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) urged followers of her official congressional account to follow the revived, “unfiltered” personal account on the platform, the Hill’s Rebecca Klar reports. Twitter in January suspended the account for violating its policy on covid-19 misinformation in January.
Taylor Greene is the latest high-profile, previously suspended account to be allowed back on the platform in the wake of Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter. Ye, the rapper previously known as Kanye West, tweeted on the platform on Sunday, CNBC reported. Twitter had restricted his account after posting antisemitic tweets. Musk on Friday announced he was restoring accounts belonging to Canadian professor Jordan Peterson and the satirical Babylon Bee, which had been suspended for misgendering an actor and a Biden administration official.
Appeals court blocks depositions from Biden administration officials over social media ‘censorship’
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit has stayed an order from a Trump-appointed federal judge in Louisiana that would have required three administration officials to give depositions in a case in which Missouri and Louisiana accuse President Biden and other federal officials of violating the First Amendment by coercing social-media platforms to censor disfavored speech. The 5th Circuit said in its ruling that federal law prohibits requiring depositions from high-ranking officials if the information sought can be obtained by other means and issued the stay until the lower court determines that no other means are available.
The three federal officials are Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy, Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency Director Jen Easterly and Robert Flaherty, White House director of digital strategy and deputy assistant to the president. The court said all three clearly are high-ranking officials and that there seems to have been little effort to obtain the information they might have by other means. The appeals court also noted that the government has turned over 15,000 pages of written communications related to the case and has argued that those prove there are no First Amendment issues in play. The appeals court said the district court should delay any depositions until it has ruled on an expected motion to dismiss the suit.