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Washington, D.C. May 27, 2021 – Fifteen national organizations called on President Biden to put an end to the recent U.S. government practice of enshrining Section 230-like protections for big tech platforms into trade agreements in a letter released Thursday. The letter comes as Congress, U.S. regulators, and courts consider ways to reform Section 230, which now enables tech companies to evade domestic liability for race and gender-based discrimination, as well as illicit activity. 

In their letter, the signers, which include civil rights groups, privacy advocates, and antitrust experts, emphasize that including Section 230-like language in trade agreements only serves to limit the domestic policy options available to address questions of public governance involving privacy concerns, civil rights, monopoly, cybercrime, and other questions related to the platforms. Their letter also features recent examples of the ways large tech corporations have allegedly discriminated against protected classes of people while hiding behind Section 230 protections. 

“There is a lively and legitimate debate happening across America about big tech and its responsibilities to protect civil rights and our democratic institutions. The administration should not shortchange that debate by calcifying Section 230 into foreign trade agreements and cutting off Congress’ ability to protect the American public,” said David Brody, who leads the Digital Justice Initiative at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “Putting Section 230 into a trade deal blocks corporate accountability; that may serve big tech’s interests, but not the public interest.” 

“Big tech wants to replicate how big pharma and Wall Street interests rigged past ‘trade’ pacts by using closed-door negotiations to lock in special rights and protections, undermine existing domestic policies they deem a hindrance to their operations and try to forestall the U.S. Congress and parliaments worldwide from enacting digital governance for the public interest,” said Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch. “The Biden-Harris administration’s goals of creating a new worker-centered trade policy and combatting structural racism is threatened by the big tech strategy of inserting special interest protections and regulatory policy constraints into trade agreements that have nothing to do with trade.” 
 

“Big tech will stop at nothing to maintain their dominance over the economy and our democracy. Inserting special protections into trade agreements to prevent 230 reform and other measures is just another tactic they are using to prevent the momentum building in Washington to address the significant harms to civil rights and economic justice these platforms perpetuate,” said Morgan Harper, Director of Policy and Advocacy at the American Economic Liberties Project. “The Biden administration must stand up to big tech and keep Section 230 out of trade agreements.” 

“By hiding behind Section 230 protections when faced with civil rights violations, big tech has already shown they believe they are above the law,” said Rashad Robinson, President of Color Of Change. “Time and time again, tech companies have used Section 230 to evade responsibility for subjecting Black people to racially based targeted advertising and discriminatory algorithms that only continue to harm Black communities. Integrating Section 230 into trade agreements only strengthens big tech’s false sense of invincibility and emboldens them to prioritize profits and power over the wellbeing of their Black users. When these practices go unchecked, tech companies are able to dodge regulation from both domestic and international powers. It is crucial that the Biden Harris administration, along with U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai, not allow big tech to use their lobbying resources to manipulate trade agreements to do a runaround Congressional regulation. Domestic and foreign lawmakers must have the authority to curtail Big Tech’s unregulated power ensuring equity and justice for Black users online.” 

Read the letter here. 

About the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law – The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (Lawyers’ Committee), a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, was formed in 1963 at the request of President John F. Kennedy to involve the private bar in providing legal services to address racial discrimination. The principal mission of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law is to secure, through the rule of law, equal justice for all, particularly in the areas of voting rights, criminal justice, fair housing and community development, economic justice, educational opportunities, and hate crimes.  For more information, please visit https://lawyerscommittee.org.