Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz and Republican Sen. John Thune on Wednesday rolled out a bipartisan bill that would increase “accountability” for Big Tech companies and enhance transparency regarding content moderation for users, in an effort to reform Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.
The bill, titled the Platform Accountability and Transparency Act and also known as the “PACT Act,” would preserve the benefits of Section 230 — a rule that shields social media companies from being held liable for content on their platforms while allowing them to moderate that content — while making “significant reforms” to protect Americans using the platforms.
“Our bill is a serious, bipartisan approach to the issue of Section 230 reform,” Thune, R-S.D., said in introducing the measure Wednesday. “And it would go a long way toward making social media platforms more accountable to consumers and increasing transparency around the content moderation process.”
Thune and Schatz, D-Hawaii, first introduced the legislation last Congress.
“Section 230 was created to help jumpstart the internet economy, while giving internet companies the responsibility to set and enforce reasonable rules on content,” Schatz said last year, adding that “it has become clear that some companies have not taken that responsibility seriously enough.”
Schatz said the bill would make platforms more accountable for content moderation policies and would provide more tools to protect consumers.
Thune on Wednesday explained that content moderation is “not all bad,” but has been “a black box, with consumers having little or no idea how the information they see has been shaped by the sites they’re visiting.”
“The PACT Act would address this problem by increasing transparency around the content-moderation process,” Thune said. “Sites would be required to provide an easily digestible disclosure of their content-moderation practices for users. And, importantly, they would be required to explain their decisions to remove material to consumers.”
Thune said that “until relatively recently,” social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter “would remove a user’s post without explanation and without an appeals process.”
Meanwhile, the legislation would also protect news articles from being removed from social media sites.
“Under the PACT Act, a newspaper whose article was posted on Facebook or Twitter and then removed by one of those platforms could challenge Facebook or Twitter, which would have to provide a reason for removing the article and allow the newspaper to appeal the decision,” Thune said.
Thune also explained that the legislation would also help develop the data to demonstrate whether social media platforms are removing content in “a biased or political fashion.”
The bill would also require transparency reports every six months from large social media platforms, like Twitter and Facebook, and would focus on data needed to determine whether and where biased moderation exists.”
The bill would require companies to remove material if a court deems it illegal, within four days of that decision. Failure to remove that material would result in the platform losing its Section 230 protections for that content or activity.
Thune also said Wednesday that the bill would also allow state attorneys general to bring civil lawsuits against social media platforms if platforms violate federal civil laws.
Meanwhile, social media platforms have received criticism from Republicans and international scrutiny for permanently banning former President Trump from the platforms in the wake of the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.
And last year, ahead of the 2020 presidential election, social media platforms were scrutinized for limiting the circulation of a New York Post report about Hunter Biden’s business overseas dealings.
Facebook admitted to limiting distribution of the article until “independent fact-checkers” could review it. Twitter blocked users from tweeting the story link or sending it via direct message to other users. Users who tried to tweet the story’s link were locked out of their accounts, while Twitter pointed to its “hacked materials” policy for censoring the story.
Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 states “no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”
The section has been pivotal in the rise of today’s social media giants by allowing not only Internet service providers – but also Google, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and others – to be shielded from liability from content posted on their platforms by third parties, in most cases. But some critics on the right feel that tech giants should no longer benefit from protections of Section 230 if they censor conservative viewpoints, including controversial postings by Trump.