Justice Department Proposes Weakening Social Media’s Legal Shield

Attorney General William Barr and President Donald Trump want to pare back longstanding legal protections for Internet platforms. Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images hide caption

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Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

The Justice Department has asked Congress to pass legislation holding online platforms such as Facebook and Twitter more accountable for what their users post, in the Trump administration’s latest salvo against social media companies.

The proposed changes would reshape Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which has long protected websites from lawsuits over the content users post, and the decisions the companies make about moderating or removing content.

“For too long Section 230 has provided a shield for online platforms to operate with impunity,” said Attorney General William P. Barr in a statement. “Ensuring that the internet is a safe, but also vibrant, open and competitive environment is vitally important to America. We therefore urge Congress to make these necessary reforms to Section 230 and begin to hold online platforms accountable both when they unlawfully censor speech and when they knowingly facilitate criminal activity online.”

The legislative proposal sent to Congress on Wednesday calls for changing Section 230 in two ways. It narrows the circumstances under which tech companies can claim legal immunity for their decisions about what content to remove, and it strips that protection entirely if they do not apply their content moderation standards consistently across the board.

It would also strip platforms of legal immunity in cases involving “illicit content,” such as if they facilitate or fail to remove harmful criminal activity, or in cases involving child sexual abuse, terrorism and cyberstalking. Tech platforms can already be sued over posts related to sex trafficking and prostitution.

Tech companies largely oppose paring Section 230’s protections, which they say have been essential to the development of the internet.

“The DOJ’s proposal would severely limit people’s ability to express themselves and have a safe experience online,” said Elizabeth Banker, deputy general counsel of the Internet Association, a trade group whose members include Facebook, Google and Twitter, in a statement on Wednesday. She warned the changes would hurt “small community listservs, religious forums, and anyone else who hosts and moderates online content.”

Carl Szabo, vice president at NetChoice, another tech trade association, said: “These amendments would make it near impossible to remove election interference from foreign states like Russia or China, denigration of America’s veterans, fake reviews, and dangerous products — all things we need to be worried about as consumers and as voters during this tense election cycle.”

President Trump ordered federal regulators to reexamine Section 230 in May, after Twitter put warnings on tweets in which he made false claims about mail-in voting and violated the company’s rules against glorifying violence. In an executive order, the president said the tech companies have “unchecked power to censor, restrict, edit, shape, hide, alter” a large sphere of human interaction.

Republicans have long argued that the platforms censor conservative voices, without offering clear evidence to support their claims.

Still, pressure has been growing on both sides of the political divide to overhaul the liability shield. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has said Section 230 should be “revoked”, arguing that tech companies should be held to the same standards as media companies, which can be sued for printing falsehoods.

Congressional Democrats have balked at the Trump administration’s approach to cracking down on social media platforms, however. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., one of the original authors of Section 230, accused the Trump administration of trying to intimidate tech companies so they leave harmful political misinformation alone.

He said in a statement: “Attorney General Barr’s DOJ is continuing to act as an arm of the Trump campaign, trying to work the refs ahead of the election. This proposal is a warmed-over mishmash of existing Republican proposals to force private companies to host lies, misinformation, hate speech and other slime online.”

Trump has increased his attacks on social media platforms during the election campaign, as both Twitter and Facebook have moved more aggressively to label or even remove posts that break their rules.

The president is scheduled to meet with a group of Republican state attorneys general later on Wednesday to discuss “protecting consumers from social media abuses,” according to the White House.