Kate Tummarello

Statement Before the House Communications and Technology Subcommittee on Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act

delivered 22 May 2024, John D. Dingell Room, Rayburn House Office Building, Washington, D.C.

Audio mp3 of Address       Audio mp3 AR-XE of Address

Witness Written Testimony.pdf

 

[AUTHENTICITY CERTIFIED: Text version below transcribed directly from audio]

Chairs McMorris Rodgers and Latta, Ranking Members Pallone and Matsui, Members of the subcommittee:

Thank you for the invitation to testify before you today. My name is Kate Tummarello and I am the Executive Director of Engine, a nonprofit that works with thousands of startups across the country to advocate for pro-startup pro-innovation policies.

Sunsetting Section 230, especially in a little over 18 months without consensus around an alternative framework, risks leaving Internet platforms, especially those run by startups, open to ruinous litigation, which ultimately risks leaving Internet users without places to gather online. That user perspective is so important to these conversations. I'm incredibly grateful for the people like Carrie's clients1 who are willing to share their stories about the harms that can arise when people connect online. It undoubtedly helps us to understand what's at stake here. But it's also important to hear about the benefits of online communities for user expression, a perspective that isn't represented here today. So, as an Internet user myself, I'd like to talk briefly about a time I relied on an online community that likely couldn't exist as it does without Section 230.

In the summer of 2022, I needed medical care when I had a pregnancy tragically end at 22 weeks due to a critical health problem. While I had an amazing support system of loved ones and medical professionals, I didn't know anyone personally who had navigated such a devastating loss. I was able to turn to the support of online pregnancy loss communities -- sometimes on Facebook groups or through Instagram DMs [Direct Messages] but often on small platforms that provide resources and discussion forums for pregnant women. I leaned on those communities to navigate not only surviving the emotional trauma but also some practical considerations like, "How do I get my body to stop producing breast milk because it hasn't realized that my pregnancy didn't end with a healthy baby?"

Since it was the summer of 2022 and there was a rapidly shifting legal landscape around reproductive healthcare, I saw in real time these communities shrink as women expressed fear not only about seeking care but even about talking about seeking care online. And we've since seen states propose making it illegal to offer support to people seeking reproductive health care, including operating an Internet service that facilitates users sharing information. Currently, Section 230 is what would prevent that small platform for pregnant women that I used from having to endure expensive and time-consuming litigation anytime one person wants to see another person's content about reproductive health removed from the Internet.

My personal story is about pregnancy loss but you can substitute in any other controversial topic -- religious beliefs, fertility treatment, hunting gear, the MeToo movement, political organizing, etcetera -- and see the same consequence. If an Internet platform could be sued, or could be even threatened with a lawsuit, over the content created and shared by its users the platform will have an incredibly hard time justifying hosting that content or anything that comes close. Not only does that put those platforms in the very expensive and time-consuming position of having to find and remove lawful user speech they might want to host, it means dramatically fewer places on the Internet where people can have these kinds of difficult but necessary -- and for me life-saving -- conversations.

Sunsetting Section 230 would harm the diverse ecosystem of Internet platforms and the users that rely on them. Section 230 is a faster, more efficient way to reach an inevitable legal conclusion that Internet platforms shouldn't be punished in court for the speech and conduct of their users the platforms can't logically be expected to know about. And that means litigants can't use the threat of drawn-out and expensive legal battles to pressure Internet platforms into removing speech the litigants don't like.

Section 230 has enabled user expression far beyond the platforms run by big tech companies. That includes everything from the nonprofit-run Wikipedia to libraries to educational institutions to Internet infrastructure companies to individuals running Mastadon servers or community listservs or bloggers with comment sections. And it works for startups and Engine's network, like those that build local communities through events, create safer dating experiences, facilitate conversation about current events, support educators, help small businesses find customers, and much more.

We know that startups with limited budgets and small teams invest proportionately more in content moderation than their larger counterparts. They have to. They need their corners of the Internet to remain safe, healthy, and relevant if they want to grow. But they don't have the thousands of content moderators that large tech platforms employ, and they can't always buy or build content detection and removal technologies, neither of which is a silver bullet option.

Startups are also least equipped to handle the cost of litigation. The average seed stage startup has about $55,000 per month to cover all of its expenses. Contrast that with the cost of defending against a lawsuit, which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, even if the startup were to ultimately prevail. It would always be in the best option for a startup's bottom line to just avoid the lawsuit altogether, even if that means removing user content it would otherwise host, to the detriment of its users.

Sunsetting Section 230 won't lead to the outcome that this -- the leaders of this committee say they want: an Internet where free expression, prosperity, and innovation can flourish. Section 230 is and has been critical to those goals and it's essential for the competitiveness of U.S. startups. Instead of sunsetting Section 230 in the hopes of an elusive replacement, we must be clear-eyed about what we can realistically accomplish and what we risk in terms of trade-offs to expression, prosperity, and innovation.

Thank you for the opportunity to testify and I look forward to answering your questions.


1 Carrie Goldberg, Founding Attorney, C.A. Goldberg, PLLC, Click here for Ms. Goldberg's Written Testimony.pdf

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