U.S. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), chairman of the Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, Innovation, and the Internet, today discussed the Platform Accountability and Consumer Transparency (PACT) Act, bipartisan legislation he introduced with Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) to address some of the issues surrounding Section 230 and user-generated content sites, like consumer protection for online platform users. Yesterday, Thune led a subcommittee hearing to examine online platforms’ content moderation practices and to discuss what legislative measures can be taken to ensure consumers are protected and empowered while on the internet. During the hearing, one of the original authors of the Section 230 provision, former Representative Chris Cox, confirmed that the PACT Act could go a long way toward making user-generated internet sites more accountable to consumers.
Excerpt of Thune’s remarks below:
“Mr. President, yesterday, in my role as head of the Commerce Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, Innovation, and the Internet, I led a hearing looking at proposed reforms to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.
“So what is Section 230?
“Well, Section 230 provides internet sites that host user-generated content – sites like YouTube or Twitter or Facebook – with immunity for the content users post on their sites.
“So, for example, if somebody uploads a YouTube video with defamatory content, YouTube isn’t held responsible for that content.
“It’s not unfair to say that Section 230 has enabled the internet as we know it.
“Without Section 230 protections, many of the sites we rely on for social connection or news or entertainment would never have come into being.
“If a solo blogger, for example, could be held responsible for monitoring each and every comment on his or her site, no matter how many hundreds or thousands there are, it’s unlikely blogging would ever have taken off.
“And if YouTube were responsible for the content of every one of the millions of videos on its site – well, it’s unlikely YouTube would have grown the way it has.
“There’s a reason user-generated sites like Twitter and Facebook are U.S. companies and not, for example, European companies.
“And that’s because other countries do not offer the liability protections of Section 230.
“But Section 230 was written in the infancy of the internet – long before sites like Twitter and Facebook were created – and as we’ve seen the internet grow, we’ve come to realize that there are also some changes that need to be made.
“For example, while I support the principle that sites should not be held responsible for everything users generate, there’s a difference between an inappropriate video a site misses and a site that knowingly allows itself to be used for criminal purposes.
“In 2018, after it became obvious that certain sites were knowingly allowing themselves to be used by child traffickers and predators, Congress passed a law to hold these and other sites responsible for enabling child sex trafficking.
“As the previous chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee and current chairman of the Commerce Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, Innovation, and the Internet, I’ve been focusing on internet issues related to user-generated content sites for the past couple of years.
“I’ve chaired several hearings on the topic, including a hearing on terrorist content on sites like Twitter and Facebook and a hearing on the opaque algorithms that these sites use to filter the content users see.
“And at the end of June, Senator Schatz and I introduced legislation – the Platform Accountability and Consumer Transparency Act, or PACT Act – to address some of the issues surrounding Section 230 and user-generated content sites.
“Our bill would preserve the benefits of Section 230 – like the internet growth and widespread dissemination of free speech it has enabled – while increasing accountability and consumer transparency.
“One reason Section 230 has become so controversial is that internet platforms have actively cultivated the notion that they are merely providing the technology for people to communicate and share their thoughts and ideas.
“But the reality is somewhat different.
“The truth is, websites have a strong incentive to exercise control over the content each of us sees, because if they can present us with content that will keep us engaged, we will stay on that site longer.
“Today, sites like Facebook and Twitter make use of sophisticated content moderation tools, algorithms, and recommendation engines to shape the content we see on these platforms.
“Now, moderation can certainly improve the user experience.
“Most of us would prefer that YouTube suggest videos that match our interests, rather than something completely unrelated.
“The problem is that content moderation has been – and largely continues to be – 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.
“It would require internet platforms like Facebook and Twitter to submit quarterly reports to the Federal Trade Commission outlining material they’ve removed from their sites or chosen to deemphasize (for example, posts they’ve chosen to mostly exclude from users’ feeds).
“Sites would also 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.
“Until relatively recently, sites like Facebook and Twitter would remove a user’s post without explanation and without an appeals process.
“And even as platforms start to shape up their act with regard to transparency and due process, it’s still hard for users to get good information about how content is moderated.
“The PACT Act would also require sites to create an appeals process – so if Facebook, for example, removes one of your posts, it would not only have to tell you why, but it would have to provide a way for you to appeal that decision.
“To some extent, some platforms like Facebook are already starting to do this, but by no means are all of them doing so.
“The PACT Act would preserve companies’ 230 protections for material posted on their sites, but it would require companies to remove material that has been adjudicated as illegal by a court.
“Large sites like Facebook and Twitter would be required to remove illegal content within 24 hours, while smaller sites would be given additional time.
“Failure to remove illegal material would result in the site’s losing its 230 protections for that content or activity – a provision that matches a recent recommendation made by the Department of Justice for Section 230 reform.
“Finally, Mr. President, in addition to promoting transparency and accountability, the PACT Act also contains measures to strengthen the government’s ability to protect consumers.
“As the Department of Justice has noted in its recommendations to reform Section 230, broad Section 230 immunity can pose challenges for federal agencies in civil enforcement matters.
“It is questionable whether Section 230 was intended to allow companies to invoke Section 230 immunity against the federal government acting to protect American consumers in the civil enforcement context.
“This contributes to the creation of a different set of rules for enforcing consumer protections against online companies, compared to those in the offline world.
“Mr. President, I’m grateful to Senator Schatz for his work on this bill, and I’m proud of what we’ve put together.
“We’ve both done a lot of work on these issues, and this bill is a serious, bipartisan solution to some of the problems that have arisen around Section 230.
“Our hearing yesterday – which included one of the original authors of the Section 230 provision, former Representative Chris Cox – confirmed that the PACT Act could go a long way toward making user-generated internet sites more accountable to consumers.
“I look forward to working with Senator Schatz to advance our legislation in the Senate, and I hope we’ll see a vote on our bill in the near future.”