US debate on internet liability spills over to global trade deals

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Washington

US lawmakers seeking to rein in Big Tech have been stepping up efforts to limit legal immunity for online services, and now are taking that fight global.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi this week backed a move by fellow lawmakers to carve out the so-called Section 230 protection—which some activists say is a cornerstone of the open internet—from a North American trade pact with Canada and Mexico, known as USMCA.
“There are concerns in the House about enshrining the increasingly controversial Section 230 liability shield in our trade agreements, particularly at a time when Congress is considering whether changes need to be made in US law,” Pelosi spokesman Henry Connelly said.
Debate on Section 230, a clause in the 1996 Communications Decency Act, has been raging for months amid rising concerns about the failure of tech platforms to curb hate speech, extremist content, copyright infringement and other abuses.
The effort to modify the law—which immunizes online services from third-party content on their sites—has drawn support from both Democrats and Republicans. Republican Senator Josh Hawley proposed legislation earlier this year that would end the immunity unless companies submit to an “external audit” which shows they are acting in a “politically neutral” manner.
“With Section 230, tech companies get a sweetheart deal that no other industry enjoys: complete exemption from traditional publisher liability in exchange for providing a forum free of political censorship,” Hawley said in introducing the legislation. “Unfortunately, and unsurprisingly, big tech has failed to hold up its end of the bargain.”
Civil liberties activists said Hawley’s bill is unconstitutional and would put the government in charge of regulating speech. Other analysts point out that Section 230 has enabled the internet to thrive and that modifying it could be devastating for the internet and online speech.—AFP

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