By Nandita Bose and Jarrett Renshaw
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Congressional Democrats have begun discussions with the White House on ways to crack down on Big Tech including making social media companies accountable for the spread of disinformation on matters such as the U.S. Capitol riot and addressing the abuse of market power to harm corporate rivals.
The conversations, described by a lawmaker and congressional aides, have included the contentious topic of what to do with a measure called Section 230, part of a 1996 law called the Communications Decency Act, that shields social media platforms from lawsuits over much of the content posted by users.
Democratic President Joe Biden as a candidate last year called for revoking Section 230, and his Republican predecessor Donald Trump unsuccessfully pressed Congress to repeal it.
Many lawmakers in recent years have called for laws and regulations to rein in dominant tech companies such as Facebook Inc, Twitter Inc, Alphabet Inc’s Google, Amazon.com Inc and Apple Inc. Democratic lawmakers also have expressed alarm over social media’s role in the lead-up to a pro-Trump mob’s Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.
The conversations between lawmakers and Biden aides represent the first sign that the White House has begun actively getting involved in considering how to take on Big Tech. They also show how lawmakers are trying to get Biden staffers on board as part of the lengthy lawmaking process on a wide range of issues. Biden took office on Jan. 20.
Democratic Representative Tom Malinowski, a member of the House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee, said he has begun conversations with the White House on how to hold large social media platforms accountable for amplifying radicalizing content that triggers violence.
Malinowski said he discussed legislation he sponsored last year that would hold these companies legally liable if they actively promote content, using algorithms designed to increase profits and readership, that leads to violence.
“This is a priority for me, and we have had preliminary conversations with the White House on a path forward,” Malinowski said.
Malinowski’s legislation would amend but not revoke Section 230.
Several congressional aides, speaking on condition of anonymity, said members of Biden’s team are listening to concerns raised by lawmakers on issues involving Big Tech, asking questions and participating in conversations about potential future action. The White House declined comment on these discussions.
Democratic Representative David Cicilline, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee’s antitrust subcommittee, has raised with the White House the topic of more stringent antitrust enforcement against Big Tech, a source familiar with the matter said. A Cicilline spokesman declined comment.
Based on Cicilline’s previous public comments, that could mean he actively pursues legislation based on recommendations from his subcommittee’s 400-page October report into the state of competition in the digital economy including business practices of Apple, Amazon, Google and Facebook.
Some antitrust experts said this also could mean broadening the Justice Department’s October lawsuit that accused Google of misusing its market power to crush rivals.
ADDRESSING SECTION 230
Aides to Democratic Senator Ron Wyden, a co-author of Section 230, have spoken to the White House about reforming the provision, a Wyden aide said. Those talks, the aide added, were aimed at a “deliberate approach to reforming the law” rather than repealing it.
“We have conveyed Senator Wyden’s view that it would be tremendously harmful to repeal or change 230 without great care,” the aide said.
Republican lawmakers including Trump ally Senator Josh Hawley have pushed for repealing Section 230 and have accused tech companies of censoring the views of conservatives. Biden aides, speaking on condition of anonymity, have previously said he is open to debate on how to reform Section 230.
Dumping it was so important to Trump that he vetoed $740 billion defense policy legislation in December because lawmakers had not heeded his demand for language repealing Section 230 – a veto Congress later overrode.
Trump was angered after Twitter, in cracking down on election misinformation, labeled some of his posts as containing disputed or misleading content. Twitter in January banned Trump’s account.
Wyden’s aides have circulated material among Senate Democrats to try to build consensus on changing but not dumping Section 230, a separate congressional source familiar with the material said. A Wyden spokesman declined comment.
Another Democrat, Representative Jackie Speier, plans to speak with the White House about the spread of disinformation, gender-based attacks online and steps toward content moderation, a Speier aide said. Speier already has sent Biden a letter urging him to declare white supremacy a national-security threat.
Scott Wallsten, president of the Washington-based Technology Policy Institute think tank, said the conversations involving lawmakers and Biden aides can inform the president’s thinking on issues related to tech and at the very least get White House advisers thinking about what needs to be done.
“I think they are trying to develop a more well-thought-out position,” Wallsten said of White House officials. “But I must add, a lot of this will take time – nothing in terms of policy positions will be immediate.”
(Reporting by Nandita Bose and Jarrett Renshaw; Editing by Will Dunham and Chris Sanders)