Reps. Eshoo and Malinowski Introduce Bill to Hold Tech Platforms Liable for Algorithmic Promotion of Extremism

October 20, 2020
Press Release

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, Congresswoman Anna G. Eshoo (CA-18) and Congressman Tom Malinowski (NJ-7) introduced the Protecting Americans from Dangerous Algorithms Act, legislation to hold large social media platforms accountable for their algorithmic amplification of harmful, radicalizing content that leads to offline violence.

The bill narrowly amends Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act to remove liability immunity for a platform if its algorithm is used to amplify or recommend content directly relevant to a case involving interference with civil rights (42 U.S.C. 1985); neglect to prevent interference with civil rights (42 U.S.C. 1986); and in cases involving acts of international terrorism (18 U.S.C. 2333). 42 U.S.C. 1985 and 1986 are Reconstruction-era statutes originally designed to reach Ku Klux Klan conspirators, and are central to a recent suit alleging Facebook facilitated militia violence in Kenosha, WI. 18 U.S.C. 2333 is implicated in several lawsuits, including an earlier suit against Facebook, alleging its algorithm connected terrorists with one another and enabled physical violence against Americans. The bill only applies to platform companies with 50 million or more users.

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (47 U.S.C. 230) immunizes “interactive computer services” from legal liability for user-generated content (with some exceptions, such as for federal crimes). The largest internet platforms use sophisticated, opaque algorithms to determine the content their users see, leveraging users' personal and behavioral data to deliver content designed to maximize engagement and the amount of time spent on the platforms. The Protecting Americans from Dangerous Algorithms Act establishes the principle that platforms should be accountable for content they proactively promote for business reasons, if doing so leads to specific offline harms.

The bill is distinct from other legislative proposals to reform Section 230 in that it preserves the core elements of the law that protect the speech of users, is narrowly targeted at the algorithmic promotion of content that leads to the worst types of offline harms, and does not seek to mandate political "neutrality" as a condition for Section 230 protections.

To read a copy of the legislation, click here.

“I was a conferee for the legislation that codified Section 230 into federal law in 1996, and I remain a steadfast supporter of the underlying principle of promoting speech online. However, algorithmic promotion of content that radicalizes individuals is a new problem that necessitates Congress to update the law,” said Congresswoman Eshoo. “Amidst the recent flurry of politically motivated activity related to Section 230, I’m proud to partner with Congressman Tom Malinowski on a serious effort to respond to the specific and abhorrent problem of online radicalization that leads to offline violence.”

“Social media companies have been playing whack-a-mole trying to take down QAnon conspiracies and other extremist content, but they aren't changing the design of a social network that is built to amplify extremism," said Congressman Malinowski. “Their algorithms are based on exploiting primal human emotions — fear, anger, and anxiety — to keep users glued to their screens, and thus regularly promote and recommend white supremacist, anti-Semitic, and other forms of conspiracy-oriented content. In other words, they feed us more fearful versions of what we fear, and more hateful versions of what we hate. This legislation puts into place the first legal incentive these huge companies have ever felt to fix the underlying architecture of their services." 

"I commend Representatives Malinowski and Eshoo for their leadership in recognizing that the dominant digital platforms now curate social content not in the ways that consumers ideally want, but, rather, in ways that maximize engagement and profit. We need to raise new standards for the digital platforms that incentivize the promotion of positive content and disincentivize the promotion of extremist and conspiratorial content that could lead to offline violence. This innovative legislation to address the blanket liability shield provided by Section 230 of the C.D.A. will induce these much-needed media reforms." —Dipayan Ghosh, Co-Director of the Digital Platforms & Democracy Project at the Harvard Kennedy School, author of Terms of Disservice, and former technology policy advisor at the White House

"Representatives Malinowski and Eshoo’s proposed legislation is an important measure that will work to hold the technology sector accountable for irresponsibly deploying algorithms that amplify dangerous and extremist content. The titans of tech have long relied on these algorithms to maximize engagement and profit at the expense of users, and this must change. This bill will help to encourage better behavior from the industry in the interest of public safety.” —Dr. Hany Farid, Senior Advisor, Counter Extremism Project; Professor, UC Berkeley 

“If there is to be Section 230 reform, it has to be done by Congress. Representatives Malinowski and Eshoo’s bill is a measured, incremental step insofar as it would hold the largest platforms responsible when they choose to algorithmically promote violations of federal civil rights and anti-terrorism laws.” —Ellen P. Goodman, Professor, Rutgers Law School and Co-Director, Rutgers Institute for Information Policy & Law

"This bill identifies a problem, suggests a sensible solution and will unite all lawmakers in opposition to the unfettered use of platforms by violent extremists. Its passage would undeniably make our societies safer from hate and violence." —Imran Ahmed, CEO, Center for Countering Digital Hate

“Online content providers have maximized their valuation and profitability by behaviorally hijacking users’ attention. Their algorithmic instruments learn from our every move, and too often serve radical and conspiratorial content to keep us tuned in. I applaud Representatives Malinowski and Eshoo for their proposed amendment to Section 230, a step toward a safer digital and physical world.”  —Ramesh Srinivasan, Professor and Director, UC Digital Cultures Lab, author of Beyond the Valley

"There has to be accountability for social media giants when their own content-shaping algorithms are actively contributing to serious harms. These companies built tools that maximize engagement above all else – tools that have amplified dangerous conspiracy theories and grown extremist movements. They've been turning massive profits without any liability, while society pays the price. I thank Representatives Malinowski and Eshoo for their commitment to address this urgent and growing problem.” —Jesse Lehrich, Cofounder, Accountable Tech

Rep. Malinowski represents New Jersey's 7th congressional district. Earlier this month, his bipartisan resolution to condemn QAnon and the dangerous conspiracy theories it promotes passed in the House of Representatives 371-18. Last year, he led the effort in the House to restore funding for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's program to combat domestic terrorism and targeted violence.

Rep. Eshoo represents California’s 18th congressional district, which includes much of Silicon Valley. She is a senior member of the Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, which has jurisdiction over Section 230. She was a conferee for the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which included the codification of Section 230.