Senate Bill Threatens Web Companies With Lawsuits Over Recommendations

A Senate bill introduced Wednesday would strip social media companies of their legal protections for potentially harmful speech by users, if the platforms algorithmically promote that speech.

The “Protecting Americans from Dangerous Algorithms Act,” introduced by Senator Ben Ray Luján (D-New Mexico), would allow people to sue large web platforms that algorithmically amplify or recommend user-created content "directly relevant” to violations of civil rights laws, or to “international terrorism.”

Currently, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act protects websites from liability for most forms of content posted by users, including speech that's unlawful because it's defamatory. (Separately, the First Amendment also protects companies' right to publish all legal speech, including speech that's racist, sexist or otherwise objectionable.)

The Senate bill is a companion to a House bill introduced last year by Representatives Anna Eshoo (D-California) and Tom Malinowski (D-New Jersey).

Luján's new bill comes as Republican lawmakers are pushing social media platforms to carry all lawful speech, no matter how untrue or objectionable -- including false medical information.

Last month, Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed a law that prohibits Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other large platforms from suppressing posts based on the authors' political viewpoints. A proposed amendment that would have explicitly allowed the companies to remove vaccine misinformation failed, as did a proposed amendment that would have explicitly allowed companies to take down posts denying the Holocaust.

Tech industry groups are challenging that bill in court.

The Silicon Valley lobbying group Internet Association weighed in against Lujan's proposed bill on Thursday.

“With the amount of content posted to the internet in a day measuring in the billions, algorithms are the most efficient way to cast a wide net and they are the fastest way to keep up with the ever evolving methods of bad actors,” Internet Association CEO and president K. Dane Snowden stated. “Any legislation that exposes the use of algorithms to liability risk may unintentionally disrupt the many systems in place that protect consumers from potentially harmful content.”

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