Microsoft's Brad Smith: Tech companies won't wait for U.S. to act on social media laws

NEW YORK and SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Microsoft Corp MSFT.O President and Chief Legal Officer Brad Smith said on Friday that U.S. tech companies will change how they moderate online platforms in response to new laws from foreign governments, regardless of whether U.S. lawmakers take action.

In an interview with Reuters Editor-in-Chief Stephen J. Adler at a Reuters Newsmaker event in New York, Smith said that other countries such as New Zealand were passing laws in the wake of events like the mass murder in Christchurch earlier this year.

The murder of 51 people at mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand was streamed on major online platforms including Facebook FB.O and Alphabet Inc's GOOGL.O YouTube. The companies raced to take down the videos, but they were still available for more than a day.

“The laws around the world are going to change, and because technology is so global, American companies will adopt a new approach even if the United States Congress does nothing,” he said. Smith spoke to Reuters as part of a tour to promote his recently released book, “Tools and Weapons.”

Section 230 of the U.S. Communications Decency Act of 1996, protects tech companies from being sued for what users of their online platforms upload. But Smith said the law, critical to enabling the expansion of internet services and social media, should now be revisited.

Technology companies, he said, should have a “new level of responsibility” for what is said on their sites.

Smith, who was promoted to Microsoft president in 2015, the first time the company had filled the role in more than a decade, has since become the company’s public face on controversial intersections between technology and society.

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He also said tech companies have a responsibility to work together to help bridge the so-called digital divide, where rural Americans often lack broadband internet access, calling it “the technological underpinning for many of the major social, economic and political issues of the day.”


The technology industry’s responsibility to society was a theme in the discussion and in his new book. Smith said the industry should not enable governments to engage in cyber attacks.

He said Microsoft has turned down government requests for facial recognition software in cases where it fears misuse.

“We won’t sell facial recognition services for the purposes of mass surveillance anywhere in the world,” he added.

Microsoft has called for stronger regulation of facial recognition technology, which has been used in China to track ethnic minorities.

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Smith stopped short for calling for an outright ban on the technology, saying that Microsoft believes it has valid uses and has argued that governments should move faster to regulate it.

“It’s hard to innovate if you can’t use something, and it’s hard to learn if you can’t innovate,” Smith said.

Still, critics have said the technology is not appropriate for use by law enforcement at all, warning it could undermine civil liberties and ensnare innocent people. Recent studies found that facial analysis tools from various companies struggled to identify the gender of individuals with darker skin, for instance, causing concern about unjust arrests.

“Microsoft sells systems that claim to detect fear and that can track the faces of up to a million people in real-time,” Neema Singh Guliani, senior legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, said in response to Smith’s remarks. “For these words to be more than just a talking point, the company needs to commit to not selling these products to the government.”

Debates over the use of facial recognition have picked up steam in recent months. This week California’s legislature approved a three-year ban on the technology for body cameras used by state and local police, following moves earlier this year by cities including San Francisco that prohibit all uses of facial recognition by municipal officials.

Reporting by Stephen Nellis and Jeffrey Dastin in San Francisco and Sheila Dang in New York; Editing by Louise Heavens, Steve Orlofsky and Daniel Wallis