Two Democratic senators introduced a bill Thursday that would strip away the liability shield that social media platforms hold dear when those companies boost anti-vaccine conspiracies and other kinds of health misinformation.
The Health Misinformation Act, introduced by Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Ben Ray Luján (D-NM), would create a new carveout in Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act to hold platforms liable for algorithmically promoted health misinformation and conspiracies. Platforms rely on Section 230 to protect them from legal liability for the vast amount of user-created content they host.
“For far too long, online platforms have not done enough to protect the health of Americans,” Klobuchar said. “These are some of the biggest, richest companies in the world and they must do more to prevent the spread of deadly vaccine misinformation.”
The bill would specifically alter Section 230’s language to revoke liability protections in the case of “health misinformation that is created or developed through the interactive computer service” if that misinformation is amplified through an algorithm. The proposed exception would only kick in during a declared national public health crisis, like the advent of COVID-19, and wouldn’t apply in normal times. The bill would task the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) with defining health misinformation.
“Features that are built into technology platforms have contributed to the spread of misinformation and disinformation, with social media platforms incentivizing individuals to share content to get likes, comments, and other positive signals of engagement, which rewards engagement rather than accuracy,” the bill reads.
The bill also makes mention of the “disinformation dozen” — just 12 people, including anti-vaccine activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and a grab bag of other conspiracy theorists, who account for a massive swath of the anti-vax misinformation ecosystem. Many of the individuals on the list still openly spread their messaging through social media accounts on Twitter, Facebook and other platforms.
Section 230’s defenders generally view the idea of new carveouts to the law as dangerous. Because Section 230 is such a foundational piece of the modern internet, enabling everything from Yelp and Reddit to the comment section below this post, they argue that the potential for unforeseen second-order effects means the law should be left intact.
But some members of Congress — both Democrats and Republicans — see Section 230 as a valuable lever in their quest to regulate major social media companies. While the White House is pursuing its own path to craft consequences for overgrown tech companies through the Justice Department and the FTC, Biden’s office said earlier this week that the president is “reviewing” Section 230 as well. But as Trump also discovered, weakening Section 230 is a task that only Congress is positioned to accomplish — and even that is still a long shot.
After a recent war of words with President Biden over its handling of Covid-19 misinformation, Facebook struck a cooperative if vague note on the new Democratic bill. “We believe clarification on the difficult and urgent questions about health related misinformation would be helpful and look forward to working with Congress and the industry as we consider options for reform,” Facebook VP of Public Policy Kevin Martin said.
While the new Democratic bill is narrowly targeted as far as proposed changes to Section 230 go, it’s unlikely to attract bipartisan support. Republicans are also interest in stripping away some of Big Tech’s liability protections, but generally hold the view that platforms remove too much content rather than too little. Republicans are also more likely to sow misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccines themselves, framing vaccination as a partisan issue. Whether the bill goes anywhere, it’s clear that an alarming portion of Americans have no intention of getting vaccinated — even with a much more contagious variant on the rise and colder months on the horizon.
“As COVID-19 cases rise among the unvaccinated, so has the amount of misinformation surrounding vaccines on social media,” Luján said of the proposed changes to Section 230. “Lives are at stake.”
Google December Product Reviews Update Affects More Than English Language Sites? via @sejournal, @martinibuster
Google’s Product Reviews update was announced to be rolling out to the English language. No mention was made as to if or when it would roll out to other languages. Mueller answered a question as to whether it is rolling out to other languages.
Google December 2021 Product Reviews Update
Our December 2021 product reviews update is now rolling out for English-language pages. It will take about three weeks to complete. We have also extended our advice for product review creators: https://t.co/N4rjJWoaqE
— Google Search Central (@googlesearchc) December 1, 2021
The focus of the update was for improving the quality of reviews shown in Google search, specifically targeting review sites.
A Googler tweeted a description of the kinds of sites that would be targeted for demotion in the search rankings:
“Mainly relevant to sites that post articles reviewing products.
Think of sites like “best TVs under $200″.com.
Goal is to improve the quality and usefulness of reviews we show users.”
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Google also published a blog post with more guidance on the product review update that introduced two new best practices that Google’s algorithm would be looking for.
The first best practice was a requirement of evidence that a product was actually handled and reviewed.
The second best practice was to provide links to more than one place that a user could purchase the product.
The Twitter announcement stated that it was rolling out to English language websites. The blog post did not mention what languages it was rolling out to nor did the blog post specify that the product review update was limited to the English language.
Google’s Mueller Thinking About Product Reviews Update
Product Review Update Targets More Languages?
The person asking the question was rightly under the impression that the product review update only affected English language search results.
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But he asserted that he was seeing search volatility in the German language that appears to be related to Google’s December 2021 Product Review Update.
This is his question:
“I was seeing some movements in German search as well.
So I was wondering if there could also be an effect on websites in other languages by this product reviews update… because we had lots of movement and volatility in the last weeks.
…My question is, is it possible that the product reviews update affects other sites as well?”
John Mueller answered:
“I don’t know… like other languages?
My assumption was this was global and and across all languages.
But I don’t know what we announced in the blog post specifically.
But usually we try to push the engineering team to make a decision on that so that we can document it properly in the blog post.
I don’t know if that happened with the product reviews update. I don’t recall the complete blog post.
But it’s… from my point of view it seems like something that we could be doing in multiple languages and wouldn’t be tied to English.
And even if it were English initially, it feels like something that is relevant across the board, and we should try to find ways to roll that out to other languages over time as well.
So I’m not particularly surprised that you see changes in Germany.
But I also don’t know what we actually announced with regards to the locations and languages that are involved.”
Does Product Reviews Update Affect More Languages?
While the tweeted announcement specified that the product reviews update was limited to the English language the official blog post did not mention any such limitations.
Google’s John Mueller offered his opinion that the product reviews update is something that Google could do in multiple languages.
One must wonder if the tweet was meant to communicate that the update was rolling out first in English and subsequently to other languages.
It’s unclear if the product reviews update was rolled out globally to more languages. Hopefully Google will clarify this soon.
Google Blog Post About Product Reviews Update
Google’s New Product Reviews Guidelines
John Mueller Discusses If Product Reviews Update Is Global
Watch Mueller answer the question at the 14:00 Minute Mark