Congress quizzes Facebook whistleblower on potential Section 230 reforms

Congress wants to change 230, it still can't agree on how.

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Frances Haugen, the former Facebook employee turned whistleblower, testified in Congress for the second time in less than two months. Speaking to the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee, Haugen once again urged Congress to act to rein in Facebook.

Unlike Haugen’s last Congressional hearing, during which she briefed senators on Facebook’s internal research, Wednesday’s hearing was meant to be focused on potential reforms of social media platforms. Specifically, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, the 1996 law that shields online platforms from liability for their users' actions.

“This committee's attention and this Congress' action are critical,” she said during her opening statement. But she also told Congress they should be careful with changing the law as it could have unintended consequences.

“As you consider reform to section 230, I encourage you to move forward with your eyes open to the consequences of reform,” Haugen said. “Congress has instituted carve outs to Section 230 in recent years. I encourage you to talk to human rights advocates who can help provide context on how the last reform of 230 had dramatic impacts on the safety of some of the most vulnerable people in our society, but has been rarely used for its original purpose.”

Pennsylvania Rep. Michael Doyle began the hearing by acknowledging the importance of Section 230, but said the courts’ interpretation of the rule should change. “To be clear, Section 230 is critically important to promoting a vibrant and free internet,” he said. “But I agree with those who suggest the courts have allowed it to stray too far.”

But throughout the hearing, there was little discussion of specific changes or potential legislation that would change 230. Many members of Congress repeated the need for bipartisan action, but there seemed to be little agreement on what actions they should take. Doyle noted in his opening statement that members of the committee have proposed four bills that would make changes to Section 230, including one that would limit protections for companies that deployed “malicious” algorithms.

But those four bills were barely discussed during the four-hour hearing, which once again, veered into other issues. Many Republican members on the committee opted to focus on “censorship,” and their belief that platforms like Facebook are biased against them. Haugen countered that Facebook could implement changes that would make the platform safer regardless of a user’s political beliefs.

“We spent a lot of time today talking about censorship ... what we need to do is make the platform safer through product choices,” Haugen said, describing how adding “friction” to resharing content could reduce the spread of misinformation. “We need solutions like friction to make the platform safe for everyone even if you don’t speak English.”

At one point, Jim Steyer, CEO of Common Sense Media, appeared to grow frustrated. “I would like to say to this committee, you've talked about this for years, but you haven't done anything,” he said. “Show me a piece of legislation that you passed. 230 reform is going to be very important for protecting kids and teens on platforms like Instagram and holding them accountable and liable. But you also as a committee have to do privacy, antitrust and design reform.”