U.S. Justice Department proposes changes to internet platforms' immunity

Ruben Fields
September 26, 2020

The Computer & Communications Industry Association noted the odd timing of the proposal just ahead of the elections, while Attorney General William Barr was also reported to be meeting with state attorneys general on tougher enforcement of existing law covering social media.

Section 230 provides protections to operators of websites from liability for content posted by their users, and was designed in an era where internet companies were in their infancy. President Donald Trump issued an executive order in May seeking to revoke platforms' immunity, claiming they were biased against conservatives, and the Justice Department recommended an overhaul in June.

The Department of Justice has proposed that Congress amend part of a 1996 law that gives internet platforms broad immunity from civil lawsuits. "Any positive ideas in the DOJ's proposal are entirely outweighed by its overall objective, which is to put obstacles in the way of digital platforms that want to rid their services of misinformation, hate speech, and other forms of objectionable content", writes legal director John Bergmayer. It followed through on Trump's bid earlier this year to crack down on tech giants after Twitter Inc placed warning labels on some of Trump's tweets, saying they have included potentially misleading information about mail-in voting.

Congress has yet to comment on whether they will consider implementing changes to Section 230. The main goal of section 230 is to protect the owners of any "interactive IT department" from liability for anything posted by third parties. "And by improperly tracking and collecting user data, and even facilitating criminal activity".

Mr. Wyden has been less open to reviewing Section 230 than some other Democrats, including Mr. Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who said in a New York Times interview this week that House Democrats were looking at Section 230 legislation.

"Small community listservs, religious forums, and anyone else who hosts and moderates online content would face new legal restrictions and requirements on every content decision".

Online platforms and their representatives in Washington say Section 230 has played a vital role in allowing free speech to flourish online and has been integral to Silicon Valley's rapid growth. "The only way to break this cycle is to update Section 230's standards to reflect 2020's realities". They also point to Section 230's protections for how content is moderated to argue that the law is what allows them to police their platforms.

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"Most media companies are dependent on Google", Carlson pointed out.

Facebook left untouched a similar post about the protests, calling it political speech, but later clashed with Mr. Trump when it removed some Trump campaign ads and some of the president's statements about the coronavirus. This was after President Trump in May signed an executive order that seeks new regulatory oversight of tech firms' content moderation decisions and backed legislation to scrap or weaken Section 230.

Separate from the debate over Section 230, large tech companies are also facing scrutiny in Washington over their market power.

Also Wednesday, the Justice Department, which is probing Google for potential breaches of antitrust law, held a call with state attorneys general's offices to preview a complaint to be filed against the search and advertising giant, perhaps as soon as next week, according to two sources familiar with the matter.

It is regular for the department to look for assistance from state attorney generals of the United States when it submits huge suits.

He also said his administration is watching the performance of tech platforms in the run-up to the November 3 presidential election. A bill introduced earlier this month by Republican senators including Ms. Blackburn seeks to restrict companies from claiming immunity because they deemed content "objectionable", requiring them to instead meet a more specific standard.

Another bipartisan proposal, termed the "EARN IT Act", could open the companies up to lawsuits from survivors of online abuse by giving the victims legal recourse if the companies don't "earn" Section 230 immunity by following reasonable practices for dealing with harmful content.

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