'Emotional Injury': Democrats Press To Broaden Liability for Social Media Companies

Critics say policy would force platforms to heavily restrict user speech

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December 1, 2021

House Democrats on Wednesday called for legislation that would allow users to sue social media sites for causing "emotional injury."

The House Energy and Commerce Committee discussed several bills that would amend Section 230, the legislation that protects tech platforms from being legally liable for users' posts. The "Justice Against Malicious Algorithms Act" would allow users to sue platforms for causing "severe emotional injury," but does not specify a definition of emotional injury. Free speech advocates worry the law’s vagueness would force platforms to delete more user speech to avoid being sued.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R., Wash.) called the act "a thinly veiled attempt to pressure companies to censor more speech." She said if "companies will have to decide between leaving up content that may offend someone and fight it in court, or censor content that reaches a user—which do you think they’ll choose?"

Democrats and Republicans have both pushed for reforming Section 230, although for different reasons. Republicans say tech platforms should lose their immunity if they shut down conservative speech. But Democrats want to increase platforms' liability to push them to remove "misinformation." Wednesday's hearing highlighted the substantial differences between the parties. Twitter and Facebook have regularly shut down conservative speech including criticism of President Joe Biden and removed discussion of the lab leak theory of COVID-19’s origins.

Democratic witness Rashad Robinson, president of a George Soros-backed advocacy group, called for more restrictions on free speech to combat "misinformation." Robinson’s group, Color of Change, has pushed for defunding the police. Robinson also serves on the Aspen Institute’s Commission on Information Disorder, which called for a "national response strategy" to stop "misinformation" online. In the hearing, Robinson called for Congress to place legislative limits on the First Amendment, saying "I understand that we have these conversations about the First Amendment, but there are limitations to what you can and cannot say."

Democratic representatives largely agreed with Robinson that new regulations should curtail free speech. Many of them also called for requirements for social media platforms to "deamplify" content they view as objectionable.

Democratic representative Darren Soto (Fla.) said "lies are not free speech." Another Democratic panelist said freedom of speech is not "freedom of reach." Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D., Calif.) fretted about the rise of disinformation in Spanish and called for more oversight of how Facebook moderates Spanish language content. Panelist and Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen responded that Spanish speakers were "less safe" than English speakers on the platform.

Both sides found more common ground on protecting children from harm on social media, as Haugen pointed out that employees of tech companies tend to be childless.