WASHINGTON — Disney and its powerful trade association have fought to stop the law’s spread abroad.
Marriott has asked Congress to amend the law.
IBM has a plan to slim it down.
An unusual constellation of powerful companies and industries are fighting to weaken Big Tech by limiting the reach of one of its most sacred laws. The law, known as Section 230, makes it nearly impossible to sue platforms like Facebook or Google for the words, images and videos posted by their users.
The companies’ motivations vary somewhat. Hollywood is concerned about copyright abuse, especially abroad, while Marriott would like to make it harder for Airbnb to fight local hotel laws. IBM wants consumer online services to be more responsible for the content on their sites.
But they all see an opening as both Democrats and Republicans increasingly raise their own concerns about the power of the tech industry and the law. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 has helped Facebook, Google and YouTube grow into giants by holding only the people who post the billions of pieces of content on their services responsible for libel or other legal issues.
Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. said in a recent interview that Section 230 should be immediately “revoked.” Senators Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, and Brian Schatz, a Hawaii Democrat, are drafting bills that could increase the tech companies’ liability. The Justice Department is conducting a review of the law.
“People are either mad at tech companies and, legitimately in some cases, want to constrain their power for a lot of reasons,” said Daphne Keller, a professor at Stanford Law School who used to be a lawyer for Google. “Or companies are competing with tech companies and want to constrain their power for competitive reasons.
“And a lot of those reasons are really complicated, but the easiest lever to hurt tech companies that a lot of people see is 230.”
So far, the companies critical of the law have had mixed success with their lobbying. In 2018, Congress gave victims and prosecutors more power to sue websites that knowingly aided sex trafficking. The law passed with support from companies like Disney, Oracle and IBM.
But the recent trade pact with Canada and Mexico contained Section 230-like protections, potentially locking in tech-friendly rules abroad.
Now critics of Section 230 are focused on pushing to keep similar language out of future trade pacts. A handout distributed by Disney’s lobbyists last year warned Congress that trade deals with the provision would make it difficult for Congress to change the law in a way that improved the internet.
“On an almost weekly basis,” the handout said, “additional concerns are being raised: illegal opioid sales, spread of terrorist propaganda, foreign government election meddling, spread of material and tools that help pedophiles connect.”
Companies like Google and Facebook say that without Section 230 protections, building a business that gives individuals a platform for their content online would be impossible. They say it also shields online platforms from lawsuits when they police criminal or distasteful content.
Silicon Valley can employ significant resources to make its case. Google and Facebook spend millions a year on federal lobbying and are regular donors to outside policy groups. Their allies on Capitol Hill, like Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon, have defended the law.
Michael Beckerman, the president of the Internet Association, an industry group whose members include Google and Facebook, said Section 230 was “foundational to almost everything people do online.”
“It enables products and services that consumers love and rely upon every day,” Mr. Beckerman said in a statement.
While criticism of Section 230 had mounted for years, the coalition of corporate interests questioning the value of the protections took root in late 2017 when Disney and 21st Century Fox backed the bill allowing lawsuits against web platforms for knowingly facilitating sex trafficking.
“I had never seen them getting involved in any Section 230 issues before,” said Jeff Kosseff, a lawyer who wrote a book about the law.
Now, hotel companies worry about Airbnb’s use of Section 230 in lawsuits seeking to block local ordinances regulating home-sharing platforms. Judges have ruled against the company in many of those cases.
The Washington lobbying group that represents companies like Marriott, Hilton and Hyatt has backed a bill that would amend Section 230 so it didn’t apply to home-rental services in many cases.
Airbnb declined to comment.
IBM, which like other enterprise software providers is trying to distance itself from businesses like Facebook, has supported adjusting Section 230 so that companies must take “reasonable care” to keep unlawful uses of their platforms in check. The proposal would apply to companies that not only hosted information but also made it available to the public. That means it would cover a consumer service like Instagram but not to a cloud computing provider like IBM.
The Motion Picture Association and the News Media Alliance, a group that lobbies for news organizations, have urged the Trump administration not to allow the protections in a future trade deal with Britain. The film group’s concern is that it could make copyright enforcement more difficult. (The New York Times is a member of the News Media Alliance.)
Many of the consumer groups that have been critical of Section 230 don’t share the companies’ motivations. But they welcome the help from the companies, which have vast lobbying networks and the ability to get a meeting with the right aide at just the right time.
Gretchen Peters, who leads the Alliance to Counter Crime Online, a group critical of Section 230, said her small organization was spread thin. If “somebody else, like the Disney folks or the hotel folks,” set up a meeting, she said, “I’ll come along.”