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On February 26, the Ninth Circuit effectively held that any challenges to a digital platform’s censorship or ad-blocking on First Amendment grounds will fail. In a unanimous opinion, the court found that YouTube is not a public forum or government actor. PragerU argued that the expansive reach of the internet and selective censorship qualified YouTube as a moderator of an effective town square, subject to First Amendment scrutiny. The court rejected this argument to find that online platforms do not require First Amendment protections, claiming that the new digital age has not changed legal principles. Read more here.
On February 24, House Antitrust Subcommittee Chairman David Cicilline (D-RI) told reporters he will propose a bill to limit Section 230 immunity for digital platforms that knowingly publish false political ads. Cicilline aims for the bill to address the “emergency problem” of false political ads. His staff is still deciding whether to remove Section 230 immunity for all political ads or just false political ads. Cicilline said that big tech companies profiting from “demonstrably false advertising” will directly affect whether citizens will have truthful information when deciding who to vote for. He has been a critic of Section 230, demanding action from Congress if the FTC fails to act. Cicilline plans to introduce the bill in a month. Read more here.
On February 21, The Wall Street Journal reported that Google is not surrendering emails, texts, and other documents for the state attorneys general investigation into possible anticompetitive practices. A Google spokesperson claims the company has complied with the investigation but raised concerns about the investigation being “irregular.” The spokesperson alleged that the investigation has included “unusual arrangements with advisers who work with our competitors and vocal complainants.” Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton remains suspicious of Google’s behavior, saying they are not acting “clean.” Read more here.
On February 19, the DOJ hosted a workshop featuring three panels about Section 230. Attorney General William Barr opened the event by expressing concern about Section 230, specifically digital platforms’ lack of cooperation with law enforcement. The panels discussed litigating Section 230, addressing illicit activity online, and alternatives to Section 230. The panelists included testimony from News Media Alliance’s President and CEO David Chavern, Patrick Carome who argued the Zeran case, and other experts in the field. Chavern stated that commercial decisions of the platforms algorithms that choose what content readers see and don’t see should carry with it responsibility for those decisions. The panelists divided over Section 230’s long and short term effects, with one side arguing for platform accountability and the other for self-regulation. Read more here.
On February 19, the News Media Alliance filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court in support of Oracle in the Google v. Oracle case. The case concerns Google’s unauthorized copying of parts of Oracle’s code when developing applications for Android. The Supreme Court will hear the case in March and wants the parties to address two questions: whether the code is copyrightable, and whether Google’s use constituted fair use. The lower U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruled in favor of Oracle on both of these questions, and the Supreme Court accepted Google’s appeal in November. The Alliance amicus brief focuses solely on the fair use question, challenging Google’s argument that its use of Oracle’s code was fair use under the current statutory standard. The brief contrasts Google’s actions in this case to their widespread and unauthorized use of news content without compensation for their own commercial purposes. Read the Alliance statement here and the full brief here.
Following the passage of the European Union’s Copyright Directive last year, Google is now in discussions with French news publishers on paying for their news content, according to news reports. Article 15 of the EU Copyright Directive created a so-called “Publishers’ Right” that gives news publishers the right to protect their content online. France became the first country to implement the Publishers’ Right in July, after which Google indicated that it would refuse to pay for news content in France and would simply display headlines in its search results unless publishers waived their rights. A competition claim was filed against Google for using its market dominance to evade the law, and a ruling is expected to come in March. According to the Financial Times, Google is now negotiating with select French publishers, including Le Monde and Figaro, about direct content payments. It is unclear what form the payments would take. Read more here.
On February 13, Senator Lindsey Graham’s (R-SC) draft bill, which would predicate interactive computer services’ Section 230 immunity on compliance with “best practices” in the proposed Act and impose liability for tech platforms that allow dissemination of child sexual abuse material (CSAM), circulated. The EARN IT Act of 2019 would establish a Commission that would seek to prevent the exploitation of children online by submitting recommended best practices to the attorney general (AG). The AG reviews and can modify the best practices before publishing them to the Federal Register, under Section 4(b) of the Act. Within one year of posting these best practices, interactive computer services are required under Section 4(c) to submit a written certification to the AG that they have reviewed and implemented the best practices. If the AG has any reason to believe the interactive computer service is not complying with best practices it can order an investigation, imposing significantly more scrutiny on the platforms previous blanket immunity under Section 230. Read more here.
On February 12, the UK’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport announced that it is “minded” to grant the Office of Communications (Ofcom) the power to regulate online platforms. The announcement was included in the Department’s initial response to the Online Harms White Paper released last April. The aim is to make the internet a safer place by protecting children and vulnerable people, in addition to increasing user trust in technology. According to the government’s announcement, Ofcom will be responsible for protecting internet users from harmful and illegal content, particularly terrorist and child abuse content. The regulations will only apply to companies that share user-generated content. Currently, Ofcom is responsible for regulating the broadcasting and telecoms industries. The Department will publish a full response to the White Paper later in the spring. Read more here.
On February 11, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) announced that it will re-examine past acquisitions of small and nascent firms by big tech companies, including Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, and Alphabet. The Special Orders, issued under Section 6(b), require the identified companies to provide information on acquisition transactions that took place in the last decade. Section 6(b) allows the FTC to request information for studies that do not have a specific law enforcement purpose in order to evaluate the companies’ acquisition activities and to evaluate whether they are making anticompetitive acquisitions that fall below reporting thresholds. The announcement came following the conclusion of the hearings on Competition and Consumer Protection in the 21st Century, held between September 2018 and June 2019. The Commission approved the issuance of the Special Orders unanimously. Read more here.
On February 6, 2020, the House Steering Committee selected Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) to replace Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA) as ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, as Collins steps down to run for Georgia’s Senate seat. Rep. Collins and House Antitrust Chairman David Cicilline (D-RI) remain lead sponsors for H.R. 2054, the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act. The legislation is still expected to go through regular order in the House this year, according to statements made by the Chairman, while the Senate version has gained co-sponsors and the Alliance supports regular order – a hearing and markup – in the Senate, as well. Lawmakers are aware of the urgency, and the importance of ensuring passage of this legislation.