Legislation introduced in the Senate this week would allow social media companies to be held accountable for enabling cyber-stalking, targeted harassment and discrimination on their platforms.
U.S. Sens. Mark Warner (D-Va.), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) announced the Safeguarding Against Fraud, Exploitation, Threats, Extremism and Consumer Harms (SAFE TECH) Act, which would reform Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which Warner referred to as a “‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card to the largest platform companies even as their sites are used by scam artists, harassers and violent extremists to cause damage and injury.”
“When Section 230 was enacted in 1996, the Internet looked very different than it does today. A law meant to encourage service providers to develop tools and policies to support effective moderation has instead conferred sweeping immunity on online providers even when they do nothing to address foreseeable, obvious and repeated misuse of their products and services to cause harm,” said Sen. Warner, a former technology entrepreneur and the chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
“Section 230 was passed in 1996 to incentivize then-nascent internet companies to voluntarily police illegal and harmful content posted by their users. Now, twenty-five years later, the law allows some of the biggest companies in the world turn a blind eye while their platforms are used to violate civil and human rights, stalk and harass people, and defraud consumers—all without accountability,” Sen. Hirono said. “The SAFE TECH Act brings Section 230 into the modern age by creating targeted exceptions to the law’s broad immunity. Internet platforms must either address the serious harms they impose on society or face potential civil liability.”
“We need to be asking more from big tech companies, not less. How they operate has a real-life effect on the safety and civil rights of Americans and people around the world, as well as our democracy. Holding these platforms accountable for ads and content that can lead to real-world harm is critical, and this legislation will do just that,” Sen. Klobuchar said.
The SAFE TECH Act would make clear that Section 230:
- Doesn’t apply to ads or other paid content: ensuring that platforms cannot continue to profit as their services are used to target vulnerable consumers with ads enabling frauds and scams.
- Doesn’t bar injunctive relief: allowing victims to seek court orders where misuse of a provider’s services is likely to cause irreparable harm.
- Doesn’t impair enforcement of civil rights laws: maintaining the vital and hard-fought protections from discrimination even when activities or services are mediated by internet platforms.
- Doesn’t interfere with laws that address stalking/cyber-stalking or harassment and intimidation on the basis of protected classes: ensuring that victims of abuse and targeted harassment can hold platforms accountable when they directly enable harmful activity.
- Doesn’t bar wrongful death actions: allowing the family of a decedent to bring suit against platforms where they may have directly contributed to a loss of life.
- Doesn’t bar suits under the Alien Tort Claims Act: potentially allowing victims of platform-enabled human rights violations abroad (like the survivors of the Rohingya genocide) to seek redress in U.S. courts against U.S.-based platforms.
These changes to Section 230 do not guarantee that platforms will be held liable in all, or even most, cases. Proposed changes do not subject platforms to strict liability; and the current legal standards for plaintiffs still present steep obstacles. Rather, these reforms ensure that victims have an opportunity to raise claims without Section 230 serving as a categorical bar to their efforts to seek legal redress for harms they suffer – even when directly enabled by a platform’s actions or design.
Frequently asked questions about the bill are available here.
A redline of Section 230 is available here.