Luján Introduces Legislation to Hold Tech Platforms Accountable for Algorithmic Promotion of Extremist Content

Facebook Whistleblower: Use of Algorithms is a “National Security Issue”

Washington, D.C. – U.S. Senator Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) introduced the Protecting Americans from Dangerous Algorithms Act (PADAA) to hold large social media companies accountable for using computer algorithms that promote harmful and dangerous content that leads to offline violence. U.S. Representatives Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.) and Anna G. Eshoo (D-Calif.) introduced companion legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The bill narrowly amends Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act to remove liability immunity for a platform if it uses an algorithm 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. 1985-1986 are Reconstruction-era statutes originally signed in to law to protect newly established civil rights under the 14th Amendment. These laws reaffirm that every person is not only required to treat citizens equally, but must provide equal protection of free speech and free expression from threats of violence and inequality. They have been invoked in recent lawsuits against domestic extremists. The third statute (18 U.S.C. 2333) is implicated in several lawsuits, including against Facebook, alleging its algorithm connected Hamas terrorists with one another and enabled physical violence against Americans. The bill only applies to platform companies with 10 million or more users.

In testimony before the U.S. Senate and in answers to questions, Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen said, “My fear is that without action, divisive, and extremist behaviors we see today are only the beginning.” Ms. Haugen maintained that social media’s current use of algorithms is a “national security issue.” She testified the platform is aware of “active participation” of “the Iran government doing espionage on other state actors … This is definitely a thing that is happening,” she said during testimony on Tuesday, October 5, 2021. “And I believe Facebook’s consistent understaffing of the counter-espionage information operations and counterterrorism teams is a national security issue.”

“It is nothing short of dangerous that social media companies can profit off extremist and misleading content that endangers the lives and well-being of Americans. This content promoted by social media companies’ algorithms is sewing division, peddling deadly conspiracies and hoaxes, and leading to violence,” said Luján. “This is unacceptable, and there is widespread recognition that Congress must do more to hold social media companies accountable. Our democracy and national security are at stake.”

“The documents released by the courageous Facebook whistleblower confirmed what we’ve long known: that Facebook’s algorithms amplify harmful content that leads to offline violence, and that it knows how to fix the problem, but will not do so for fear it would hurt the bottom line,” said Rep. Malinowski. “I’m thrilled that this legislation, which I first introduced with Representative Eshoo in 2020, now has a Senate champion. It’s the first bill that would incentivize social media companies to change the engagement-based algorithms that are dividing and radicalizing Americans, and I look forward to working with Senator Luján to move it forward.” 

“Senator Luján’s companion bill to my legislation with Rep. Malinowski protects our democracy from the dangerous misinformation being amplified on social media,” said Eshoo. “As Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen has courageously shown through testimony and documents, Facebook is knowingly amplifying harmful content that can lead to offline harms. Our legislation narrowly amends Section 230 so platforms are held liable if their algorithms amplify posts that lead to offline violence.”

Earlier this year, Senators Luján and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) introduced the Health Misinformation Act to hold platforms accountable for the spread of health-related misinformation online during public health emergencies. Luján also pressed tech CEOs over the increasing rate of Spanish and other non-English language disinformation across Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Nextdoor. Earlier this month, Luján urged Reddit to combat health misinformation amid a rise of Ivermectin-related hospitalizations and deaths.

The legislation is supported by a number of leading organizations, including the Anti-Defamation League, the Center for Countering Digital Hate, Counter Extremism Project, American Jewish Committee, Consumer Reports, Common Sense Media, and News Media Alliance.

“Social media’s problematic business model puts profits over people by optimizing for engagement at any cost—even if that means amplifying and promoting hate, harassment, and violence on their platforms. These companies track us, collect our data, and then deploy personalized algorithms to keep us engaged on social media for as long as possible so they can sell as many advertisements as possible. The byproduct? Elevating and amplifying hateful, divisive, antisemitic, and conspiracy content that too often leads to tangible harm. We applaud efforts like the Protecting Americans from Dangerous Algorithms Act and the leadership of Senator Luján and Representatives Malinowski and Eshoo in working to fight dangerous algorithmic amplification and give victims tools to seek redress,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League. 

“We know all too well how algorithms push conspiracy theories and extremist material online onto individuals, benefiting platforms’ bottom line at great expense to society and to families’ well being. We must address how algorithms that platforms design and deploy prioritize user engagement above all else, and place safeguards on how information is amplified and recommended to people. We are pleased to see Senator Luján bring critical attention to this issue in the Senate and we strongly support his legislation,” said James P. Steyer, Founder and CEO, Common Sense. 

“Senator Luján’s proposed legislation is a crucial measure that will help hold the technology sector accountable for recklessly deploying algorithms that amplify dangerous and extremist content. These companies have relied on algorithms to maximize engagement and profit at the expense of individuals, children, societies, and democracies. This must change, and this bill will help to incentivize better behavior from the industry,” said Dr. Hany Farid, Senior Advisor, Counter Extremism Project; Professor, UC Berkeley. 

“The spread of antisemitism and hate, particularly through large social media platforms, cannot go ignored. In AJC’s October 2020 report on the State of Antisemitism in America, one out of five American Jews (22%) reported being targeted with an antisemitic remark online or through social media in the last five years. AJC welcomes the introduction of the Protecting Americans from Dangerous Algorithms Act in the Senate. By holding social media platforms accountable for poor algorithmic choices online, we can help stem the flow of hate-targeted attacks offline,” said Holly R. Huffnagle, U.S. Director for Combating Antisemitism, AJC (American Jewish Committee). 

“The revelations of the Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen have removed any doubt that Facebook and its surveillance capitalism business model are a threat to public safety. This bill is an essential first step on the path to reforming tech so that the industry returns to its historic role as a positive force in society,” said Roger McNamee, tech investor; co-founder of Elevation Partners, Silver Lake Partners, Integral Capital Partners; and author of Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe. 

“In the wake of the revelations on how Facebook manipulated its algorithms to drive engagement, we applaud congressional attention and seek further action. We look forward to working with Congress on reforming Section 230. The Protecting Americans from Dangerous Algorithms Act represents a good first step in that direction,” said David Chavern, President and CEO of the News Media Alliance. 

Full text of the legislation is available HERE.



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