Barr Asks: Should Facebook, Google Be Liable for User Posts?

U.S. Attorney General William Barr on Wednesday questioned whether Facebook, Google and other major online platforms still need the immunity from legal liability that has prevented them from being sued over material their users post. “No longer are tech companies the underdog upstarts. They have become titans,” Barr said at a public meeting held by the Justice Department to examine the future of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. “Given this changing technological landscape, valid questions have been raised about whether Section 230’s broad immunity is necessary, at least in its current form,” he said. Section 230 says online companies such as Facebook Inc., Alphabet Inc.’s Google and Twitter Inc. cannot be treated as the publisher or speaker of information they provide. This largely exempts them from liability involving content posted by users, although they can be held liable for content that violates criminal or intellectual property law.  FILE – U.S. Attorney General William Barr is pictured in the House chamber of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Feb. 4, 2020.Barr’s comments offered insight into how regulators in Washington are reconsidering the need for incentives that once helped online companies grow but are increasingly viewed as impediments to curbing online crime, hate speech and extremism. The increased size and power of online platforms has also left consumers with fewer options, and the lack of feasible alternatives is a relevant discussion, Barr said, adding that the Section 230 review came out of the Justice Department’s broader look at potential anticompetitive practices at tech companies. Lawmakers from both major political parties have called for Congress to change Section 230 in ways that could expose tech companies to more lawsuits or significantly increase their costs. Lawmakers’ concernsSome Republicans have expressed concern that Section 230 prevents them from taking action against internet services that remove conservative political content, while a few Democratic leaders have said the law allows the services to escape punishment for harboring misinformation and extremist content. Barr said the department would not advocate a position at the meeting. But he hinted at the idea of allowing the U.S. government to act against recalcitrant platforms, saying it was “questionable” whether Section 230 should prevent the American government from suing platforms when it is “acting to protect American citizens.” Others at the meeting floated different ideas. FILE – Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson with a bipartisan group of state attorneys general speaks to reporters in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, Sept. 9, 2019.The attorney general of Nebraska, Doug Peterson, noted that the law does not shield platforms from federal criminal prosecution; the immunity helps protect against civil claims or a state-level prosecution. Peterson said the exception should be widened to allow state-level action as well. Addressing the tech industry, he called it a “pretty simple solution” that would allow local officials “to clean up your industry instead of waiting for your industry to clean up itself.” Matt Schruers, president of the Computer and Communications Industry Association, which counts Google and Facebook among its members, said such a solution would result in tech giants having to obey 50 separate sets of laws governing user content. He suggested law enforcement’s energies might be better spent pursuing the millions of tips that the tech industry sent over every year, only a small fraction of which, he noted, resulted in investigations. “There appears to be some asymmetry there,” he said. Others argued that different rules should apply to different platforms, with larger websites enjoying fewer protections than internet upstarts. “With great scale comes great responsibility,” said David Chavern, of the News Media Alliance, whose members have bristled as Google and Facebook have gutted journalism’s business model. How to distinguishBut other panelists argued that distinguishing one site from another might be tricky. For example, would platforms like Reddit or Wikipedia, which have large reach but shoestring staffs, be counted as big sites or small ones? The panelists also briefly debated encryption, another area over which Barr has pressed the tech industry to change its modus operandi. Facebook in particular has drawn the ire of U.S. officials over its plans to secure its popular messaging platform. Kate Klonick, a law professor at St. John’s University in New York, urged caution. “This is a massive norm-setting period,” she said, with any alterations to one of the internet’s key legal frameworks likely to draw unexpected consequences. “It’s hard to know exactly what the ramifications might be.” 

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US Judge Dismisses Huawei Lawsuit Over Government Contracts Ban

A federal judge in Texas has dismissed Chinese tech giant Huawei’s lawsuit challenging a U.S. law that bars the government and its contractors from using Huawei equipment because of security concerns.The lawsuit, filed last March, sought to declare the law unconstitutional. Huawei argued the law singled out the company for punishment, denied it due process and amounted to a “death penalty.”But a court ruled Tuesday that the ban isn’t punitive and that the federal government has the right to take its business elsewhere.Huawei, China’s first global tech brand, is at the center of U.S.-Chinese tensions over technology competition and digital spying. The company has spent years trying to put to rest accusations that it facilitates Chinese spying and that it is controlled by the ruling Communist Party.The lawsuit was filed in Plano, Texas, the headquarters of Huawei’s U.S. operations. It was dismissed before going to trial. Experts had described Huawei’s challenge as a long shot, but said the company didn’t have many other options to challenge the law.Huawei said it was disappointed and will consider further legal options.The Trump administration has been aggressively lobbying Western allies to avoid Huawei’s equipment for next-generation, 5G cellular networks. Administration officials say Huawei can give the Chinese government backdoor access to data, allegations that the company rejects.U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has also spoken out against Huawei, including during a talk with reporters in Brussels on Monday, turning U.S. opposition to Huawei into a bipartisan effort.
 

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Spain Looks to Adopt Digital Tax That Has Angered the US

Spain’s government approved Tuesday the introduction of new taxes on digital business and stock market transactions, following similar steps by other European countries.The Cabinet agreed at its weekly meeting to adopt the so-called Google tax and Tobin tax. The measures still require parliament’s approval.Finance Minister Mara Jesus Montero said the Google tax, which has angered U.S. authorities and brought a threat of tariffs by the Trump administration, will be levied only from the end of the year.By then, the government hopes an international agreement on digital business taxes will be in place. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, which advises the world’s rich countries on policies, is currently trying to draw up the agreement.Montero said the government wants a “fairer” tax system, adapted to the new economic trends of globalization and digitalization.Spain’s Socialist-led coalition government is following other European countries, such as France and the United Kingdom, in adopting a digital tax.The measure is an attempt to get around tax avoidance measures frequently used by multinationals. Big tech firms such as Google and Facebook pay most of their taxes in the European Union country where they are based and often pay very little in countries where they run large and profitable operations.Spain wants to place a 3% tax on online ads, on deals brokered on digital platforms and on sales of user data by tech companies that have a turnover of more than 750 million euros a year internationally and more than 3 million in Spain. It hopes to raise close to 1 billion euros a year in extra tax revenue.Other EU countries, such as France, Italy and Belgium, have already passed a Tobin tax. In Spain, the government aims to levy a 0.2% tax on share purchases involving companies worth more than 1 billion euros. That should raise more than 800 million euros annually, according to the government.A Socialist government first said it wanted to adopt the new taxes in January of last year, but an April general election foiled its plans.

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As The Digital World Occupies More of Our Time, Wellness Guides Emerge

As some of the negative effects of life lived online become more apparent, “digital wellness” groups are promoting ways to maintain healthy lifestyles. Deana Mitchell reports 

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Program Strives to Help Women Students in Tech Feel Less Isolated

Women and minorities pursuing computer science degrees often feel alone and isolated, since the field is overwhelmingly dominated by men. While about 60 percent of all 2017 bachelor’s degree recipients in the U.S. were women, only about 20 percent of Computer and Information Science bachelor’s degree recipients went to women, according to the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT). But an innovative program initiated by a global non-profit in partnership with universities across the U.S. has already made impressive gains in helping to boost those numbers. VOA’s Julie Taboh has more.

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Facebook Warns of Risks to Innovation, Freedom of Expression ahead of EU Rules

Facebook warned of threats to innovation and freedom of expression on Monday, ahead of the release of a raft of rules by the European Union this week and in coming months to rein in U.S. tech giants and Chinese companies.The social media giant laid out its concerns in a white paper, and Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg was expected to reiterate the message to EU antitrust chief Margrethe Vestager and EU industry chief Thierry Breton in Brussels on Monday.Referring to the possibility that the EU may hold internet companies responsible for hate speech and other illegal speech published on their platforms, Facebook said this ignores the nature of the internet.”Such liability would stifle innovation as well as individuals’ freedom of expression,” it said in the white paper.It suggested new frameworks that should be proportionate and necessary.Zuckerberg’s visit came on the heels of visits by Alphabet Chief Executive Sundar Pichai and Microsoft President Brad Smith to Brussels last month.Vestager and Breton will announce proposals on Wednesday aimed at exploiting the bloc’s treasure trove of industrial data and challenging the dominance of Facebook, Google and Amazon.They will also propose rules to govern the use of artificial intelligence especially in high risk sectors such as healthcare and transport. 

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Innovative Program Empowers Female Students in Technology

Women and minorities pursuing computer science degrees often feel alone and isolated, since the field is overwhelmingly dominated by men. While about 60 percent of all 2017 bachelor’s degree recipients in the U.S. were women, only about 20 percent of Computer and Information Science bachelor’s degree recipients went to women, according to the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT). But an innovative program initiated by a global non-profit in partnership with universities across the U.S. has already made impressive gains in helping to boost those numbers. VOA’s Julie Taboh has more.

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The Story of A Modern Teenage Cyborg

It seems inevitable that in this era of smart technology people would begin to think of ways to make their tech part of their body. Today, people have the ability to change themselves in new and unprecedented ways – and a 19-year-old Kai Landre is living proof. Anna Nelson has the story, narrated by Anna Rice

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