Holding Internet platforms accountable for the role they played in facilitating sexual exploitation seemed impossible, just a few years ago.
But the winds are changing.
We are at an inflection point: Legislators and political leaders are beginning to realize that something must be done about the rampant harms allowed to proliferate, unchecked, on the Internet.
The latest leader to call for legislation holding the tech industry accountable is none other than President Joe Biden. Last week, the president published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal which unequivocally states, “We must hold social-media companies accountable for the experiment they are running on our children for profit.”
The op-ed highlights many of the issues and solutions that NCOSE has been advocating for years.“We must hold social-media companies accountable for the experiment they are running on our children for profit.” – President Joe Biden Click To Tweet
Communications Decency Act Section 230 Reform
In the fierce and honest op-ed, President Biden highlights the proliferation of child sexual exploitation and image-based sexual abuse on social media and other Internet platforms.
He writes, “We need Big Tech companies to take responsibility for the content they spread and the algorithms they use. That’s why I’ve long said we must fundamentally reform Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects tech companies from legal responsibility for content posted on their sites.”
Calling for reform of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA 230) has long been a central focus of NCOSE’s efforts on Internet safety.
Although never the intention of the original lawmakers, federal and state courts interpreted CDA 230 as giving tech companies legal immunity for hosting and distributing sexually exploitative content (including child sexual abuse material, recorded rape or sex trafficking, non-consensually recorded or shared sexual images, and more), so long as that content was uploaded by a third party.
In 2018, Congress listened to survivors and passed FOSTA-SESTA, which amended CDA 230 to allow liability for websites that knowingly facilitate sex trafficking or intentionally promote the prostitution of others. This was an enormous victory, but more needs to be done to stop the injustices enabled by CDA 230.
In the 117th congressional session, NCOSE was working to pass the EARN IT Act, which would amend CDA 230 to allow liability for websites that knowingly facilitate child sexual abuse material (the more apt term for “child pornography”). We will continue advocating for child protection legislation with the start of the 118th congressional session!
Transparency in the Tech Industry
In addition to calling for CDA 230 reform as a means of addressing harmful online content, President Biden also calls for greater transparency in the tech industry.
He writes: “We also need far more transparency about the algorithms Big Tech is using to stop them from discriminating, keeping opportunities away from equally qualified women and minorities, or pushing content to children that threatens their mental health and safety.”
Transparency is a crucial factor in being able to hold tech companies accountable for the harm they cause and motivate them to do better. NCOSE has long been pushing for stronger transparency requirements for the tech industry. For example, in the 117th congressional session we advocated for the Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA), which would institute a strong transparency obligation for all commercial software applications and electronic services that are used, or likely to be used, by a minor. We will continue pushing for tech industry transparency moving forward.
Stronger Privacy Protections for Children
President Biden’s Op-Ed also called for stronger federal protections for online privacy, especially when the online user is a child. He writes, “We need… clear limits on how companies can collect, use and share highly personal data… These protections should be even stronger for young people, who are especially vulnerable online.”
These are in line with changes NCOSE supports through legislation like California’s Age Appropriate Design Code, which was signed into law in September 2022
The National Center on Sexual Exploitation is very pleased that President Biden has elevated the need for greater tech accountability and stronger protections for online users, especially children. We hope that his words will soon be translated into concrete congressional action!