[WASHINGTON, D.C.] – U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Chair of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology, and the Law convened the first hearing of this session on reforming Big Tech’s legal immunities in light of the Supreme Court argument in Google v. Gonzalez.
“I think what we are seeing is…an emerging consensus that something has to be done,” said Blumenthal in his opening remarks. “Section 230 dates from a time when the internet was a young, nascent, startup kind of venture that needed protection if it tried to weed out the bad stuff. And now, it’s used to defend keeping the bad stuff there.”
“This so-called shield has been long outdated, as we enter an era of algorithms and Artificial Intelligence, which were unknown and perhaps unimaginable on the scale that they now operate, when Section 230 was adopted,” Blumenthal continued. “And the case law, and I’ve read it, the Gonzalez court addressed it, simply doesn’t provide the kind of remedy that we need quickly enough and thoroughly enough.”
Blumenthal highlighted the rampant harms to users online, including parents like Kristin Bride who lost her son Carson to online bullying, and Saanvi Arora and Anastasia Chaglasian, young women who had pictures of their sexual abuse transmitted on anonymous platforms, and emphasized the need for Congress to take action, stating: “Section 230 actually was designed to promote a safer internet, plainly it’s doing the opposite right now.”
Blumenthal also referenced instances of unchecked housing discrimination on platforms like Craigslist and Facebook, stressing: “For any other company, these would be violations of the Fair Housing Act, but Section 230 shut the door on accountability for them, and in so many other instances, the case history on Section 230 is clear. When Big Tech firms invoke it, those being denied justice are often women, people of color, members of the LGBTQ community, or children, and the victims and survivors of sexual abuse.”
Video of Blumenthal’s opening remarks can be found here. Video of Blumenthal’s questions to witnesses can be found here, here, and here. A transcript of Blumenthal’s opening remarks is available below.
U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal: Thanks very much, Senator Durbin. I think it is a mark of the importance and the imminence of reform that Senator Durbin is here today. His leadership led to the hearing that we had just a couple of weeks ago, showing the harms, really, desperate, despicable harms, that can result from some of the content on the internet, and the need to hold accountable the people who put it there. And that’s very simply why we are here today.
I want to thank Senator Durbin for his leadership, also Senator Coons who preceded me as head of this subcommittee. There are certainly challenging issues before us on this subcommittee, from reigning in Big Tech to protecting our civil rights in an era of Artificial Intelligence, and I am enormously encouraged and energized by the fact that we have bipartisan consensus on this first hearing.
Not always the case in the Judiciary Committee, not always the case in the United States Senate, but I’m really appreciative of Senator Hawley’s role, especially his amicus brief to the United States Supreme Court in Gonzalez, the comments by the solicitor general in that case, some of the comments by the justices. We have no ruling yet, but I think what we are seeing is, as Senator Durbin says, an emerging consensus that something has to be done.
So here’s a message to Big Tech: reform is coming. Can’t predict it’ll be in the next couple weeks, or the next couple months, but if you listen, you will hear a mounting consensus and a demand from the American public that we need to act in a bipartisan way. Section 230 dates from a time when the internet was a young, nascent, startup kind of venture that needed protection if it tried to weed out the bad stuff. And now, it’s used to defend keeping the bad stuff there.
This so-called shield has been long outdated, as we enter an era of algorithms and Artificial Intelligence, which were unknown and perhaps unimaginable on the scale that they now operate, when Section 230 was adopted. And the case law, and I’ve read it, the Gonzalez court addressed it, simply doesn’t provide the kind of remedy that we need quickly enough and thoroughly enough.
I think that the time when the internet could be regarded as a kind of neutral, or passive conduit is long since passed. Obviously, we need to look at platform design, the business operations, the personalization of algorithms, recommendations, that drive content and we’ve seen it, particularly with children, toxic content driven by algorithms in a very addictive way toward children, with this overwhelming protection that is accorded by Section 230 to the tech platforms that are responsible and need to be held accountable.
Section 230 actually was designed to promote a safer internet, plainly it’s doing the opposite right now, and what we have heard graphically, as Senator Durbin described, again, and again, and again, at hearings in the Commerce Committee, the Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, which I chaired, hearing from the whistleblower, Frances Haugen, documents that we’ve seen from Facebook, and the victims and survivors. Mrs. Bride, who lost her son [Carson]. Anastasia, who wrote me along with another young woman, Saanvi Arora and Anastasia Chaglasian, they started a petition that received 30,000 signatures from Americans across the nation, after they were victimized, pictures of their sexual abuse repeatedly transmitted on anonymous platforms, and I’m going to put their letter to me in the record without objection. But the point is, we’ve seen the harms, we need to take action to address those harms.
We’ve also seen harms Section 230 has shielded platforms like Craigslist when they hosted housing ads that openly proclaimed “no minorities.” Section 230 has immunized Facebook when its own advertising tools empowered and encouraged landlords to exclude racial minorities, and people with disabilities. For any other company, these would be violations of the Fair Housing Act, but Section 230 shut the door on accountability for them, and in so many other instances, the case history on Section 230 is clear. When Big Tech firms invoke it, those being denied justice are often women, people of color, members of the LGBTQ community, or children, and the victims and survivors of sexual abuse.
So, this hearing is very simply part of a broader effort to reform Section 230. We’ve seen some of the models and the frameworks that are possible for reform. I’m not taking sides right now, but by the end of these hearings I hope to do so. This enterprise is not new for me – 15 years ago, when I was Attorney General, dealing with Myspace and Craigslist and many the same issues that we’re confronting today, I said to my staff, “We should repeal Section 230.” And they came down on me like a house of bricks and said, “Woah, you can’t repeal Section 230, that’s the Bible of the internet!”
Well, it’s not the Bible of the internet, it’s not the Ten Commandments that have been handed down. It is a construct that is now outdated and outmoded and needs reform. And I’m really so thankful to have the leadership of Senator Hawley, who is also a longstanding champion of survivors and victims of sexual abuse and other harms, and to his great credit, a former state attorney general. Senator Hawley. ”