WASHINGTON—House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is pushing to strip out sweeping legal protections for on-line content material in the new trade pact with Mexico and Canada, in what can be a blow for big technology firms.
Internet companies lobbied hard to include the immunity language in the trade agreement, seeing it as a way to extend to Mexico and Canada the broad umbrella of legal safety they enjoy in the U.S.
But the trade-pact language also might make it harder for Congress to withdraw the current federal on-line protections for internet companies in the future, some lawmakers worry. That’s causing second ideas about including the legal defend—regarded by tech companies as a pillar of the internet—in a trade pact.
“There are concerns in the House about enshrining the increasingly controversial…liability shield in our trade agreements, particularly at a time when Congress is considering whether changes must be made in U.S. law,” a spokesman for Mrs. Pelosi (D., Calif.) stated.
The internet content dispute is one among a number of issues clouding passage of the U.S. Mexico Canada Agreement, or USMCA, that might change the North American Free Trade Agreement.
One other problem to emerge recently is opposition from Mexico to labor inspections at Mexican factories, a key demand of U.S. Democratic lawmakers.
While House Democratic leaders stressed that they were close to finalizing a deal on the trade agreement, rank-and-file lawmakers had been split Wednesday on whether time was running out to reach a deal, or if negotiations may continue into next yr.
“People should perceive time does run out,” stated Rep. Jimmy Gomez (D., Calif.), a member of the USMCA working group. “Mexicans, the White House—if they need a deal, I think it’s ripe now.”
The office of U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, who’s negotiating the pact for the Trump administration, didn’t reply to a request for comment.
Extending federal online-content immunity protections in the trade pact has been championed by the Internet Association, amongst others, which says it’s needed to help tech firms large and small expand.
“The inclusion of those provisions [in the trade deal] represents a victory for the whole American economy,” stated Internet Association President Michael Beckerman.
The trade pact’s legal defend is based on federal protections adopted by Congress for online businesses near the dawn of the internet, in Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act.
The legislation grew out of lawsuits towards early online businesses over allegedly defamatory statements that users posted on on-line message boards. However the immunity law has also shielded on-line companies from liability for sex trafficking of children and other critical crimes by their users.
Supporters of the liability shield say it also provides legal cover to responsible on-line companies that attempt to remove dangerous content.
In recent times, some lawmakers in both parties have begun to question whether these sweeping federal protections still make sense, given the internet’s growth and concerns about various online ills such as criminal activity.
In 2018, Section 230 was amended to remove on-line companies’ immunity for certain content related to sex trafficking, for instance, in a lobbying battle that pitted the big internet companies against an array of opponents, including telecommunications, media and other companies.
After big tech companies lost the battle over sex trafficking, the lobbying battle shifted to the office of the U.S. Trade Representative. Lobbyists and supporters of the tech firms stated one of the best ways to protect against further erosion of liability protections from Congress was to embed the liability protections in trade agreements.
Like the current federal law, the USMCA trade pact’s current language would provide broad immunity to web sites and other internet businesses for harms caused by their users’ content. It might generally prohibit each of the three signing countries from adopting laws that maintain computer services liable as content providers.
In August, the Democratic chairman and ranking Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee—which oversees tech firms—complained that it was incorrect to include the legal defend in the trade agreement at a time when some lawmakers were still debating the U.S. version.
“We discover it inappropriate for the USA to export language mirroring Section 230 while such critical policy discussions are ongoing,” stated the letter from Chairman Frank Pallone (D., N.J.) and Rep. Greg Walden (R., Ore.).
Mrs. Pelosi’s concerns about the trade pact’s language on internet immunity appear to echo those concerns.
Mrs. Pelosi also has had her personal experiences with the online world’s dark side. In Could, video of the speaker that had been altered to make her seem to be drunkenly slurring words made the rounds on social media. Mrs. Pelosi was unhappy that Facebook Inc. refused to take the altered video down.
There isn’t a guarantee that Mrs. Pelosi and like-minded lawmakers might be successful.
Gretchen Peters, the executive director of the Alliance to Counter Crime On-line, a group that has been pushing to exclude the immunity language from the trade deal, stated she met Tuesday with U.S. trade officials. They instructed her that the Trump administration plans to maintain the measure in USMCA.
Internet companies and their advocates say the prohibition isn’t ironclad, and the agreement wouldn’t preclude future changes to U.S. law. It might enable the U.S. to adapt its laws to address criminal activity, for instance, they say.
—Natalie Andrews and William Mauldin contributed to this article.