Mark Zuckerberg proposes a 'thoughtful reform' of Section 230

He said platforms should have to prove they have systems in place to identify and remove unlawful content.

Facebook Chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies at a House Financial Services Committee hearing in Washington, U.S., October 23, 2019. REUTERS/Erin Scott (Erin Scott / Reuters)

The CEOs of Facebook, Twitter and Google will testify before a congressional panel on misinformation on Thursday. Ahead of the hearing, the House has published the opening statements from Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey and Sundar Pichai.

Zuckerberg's is particularly noteworthy. It includes a proposal for changes to Section 230, a section of the Communications Decency Act 1996 that protects internet companies from accountability for user activity. He once again expressed Facebook's support for "updated internet regulation" and his own hope that Congress will enact "thoughtful reform of Section 230." Zuckerberg noted that while the principles of the provision remain relevant, the internet has changed substantially in the last 25 years and suggested Section 230 "would benefit from thoughtful changes to make it work better for people."

"We believe Congress should consider making platforms’ intermediary liability protection for certain types of unlawful content conditional on companies’ ability to meet best practices to combat the spread of this content," Zuckerberg said. "Instead of being granted immunity, platforms should be required to demonstrate that they have systems in place for identifying unlawful content and removing it. Platforms should not be held liable if a particular piece of content evades its detection — that would be impractical for platforms with billions of posts per day — but they should be required to have adequate systems in place to address unlawful content."

Zuckerberg suggested those best practices shouldn't concern "unrelated issues like encryption or privacy changes that deserve a full debate in their own right." He pointed out that those "adequate systems" need not meet a one-size-fits-all standard. Instead, they could be "proportionate to platform size and set by a third-party."

That might make things relatively fair for smaller companies and upstart social media services without the vast resources of Facebook. But, depending on how the provision is changed, it could limit the competition that Big Tech faces if newcomers can't afford sufficient moderation teams.

Zuckerberg's proposal, were it to be adopted by Congress, probably wouldn't require Facebook to make too many changes to its current moderation practices. Still, it could address some of the concerns that many have about Section 230. Senators have introduced a number of bills and proposals to reform the provision.

President Joe Biden called for a full repeal of Section 230 during his campaign. In his letter, Pichai warned of the dangers of doing so. He described the provision as "foundational" to the open web. "Without Section 230, platforms would either over-filter content or not be able to filter content at all," Pichai wrote. "In the fight against misinformation, Section 230 allows companies to take decisive action on harmful misinformation and keep up with bad actors who work hard to circumvent their policies."

Dorsey, meanwhile, highlighted Twitter's Birdwatch program, an experiment aimed at tackling misinformation on the platform with the help of the community. He also pointed to Twitter's funding of Bluesky, a project to develop an open social media standard.

"Bluesky will eventually allow Twitter and other companies to contribute to and access open recommendation algorithms that promote healthy conversation and ultimately provide individuals greater choice," Dorsey wrote. "These standards will support innovation, making it easier for startups to address issues like abuse and hate speech at a lower cost."