Trump administration proposes bill to chip away at online industry's legal protections

The Justice Department proposed legislation Wednesday to narrow a key set of legal protections that shield internet companies like Facebook and Google from lawsuits over their efforts to police speech online, marking the latest escalation of the Trump administration’s battle with social media platforms.

The details: The legislation, submitted by the DOJ to Congress on Wednesday, targets a portion of federal law known as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects a broad swath of online businesses from liability for hosting user material and taking steps to curb noxious material on their sites.

The legal shield, enacted in 1996, has come under attack from officials across the political aisle amid scrutiny of how social media platforms including Facebook and Twitter moderate content on their platforms. President Donald Trump escalated his attacks on the statute after Twitter began placing fact-checking labels on his tweets this spring, reviving longstanding GOP allegations of an anti-conservative bias by Silicon Valley firms.

Under Section 230, internet companies are protected from lawsuits for making “good faith” efforts to take down or restrict a wide range of illicit or “otherwise objectionable” material. But under the new DOJ proposal, the scope of those protections would be narrowed to exclude material that is merely “objectionable,” but expanded to include content that promotes terrorism, violent extremism or self-harm. And it would require companies to notify users.

That could open internet companies up to lawsuits for removing content that is inflammatory or otherwise harmful, such as election misinformation or hate speech, but does not fall under the categories outlined under the revamped proposal.

“For too long Section 230 has provided a shield for online platforms to operate with impunity,” Attorney General William Barr said in a statement.

Barr added that he urges 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 egregious criminal activity online.”

The bill would also create carve-outs to the protections to enable federal and state prosecutors to bring both civil and criminal lawsuits against companies that promote or facilitate the spread of material that could violate federal criminal law.

What’s next: The proposal faces long odds of passage in the current Congress, despite Democrats’ own objections to the way social media companies handle disinformation and hate speech. Some congressional Democrats who support Section 230 changes objected earlier this year to the DOJ’s initial proposal on the matter.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who is leading a separate bipartisan effort to revamp Section 230, called an earlier version of the DOJ proposal a “way overbroad, meat-ax effort to suppress free speech.”

“Any efforts to narrow the scope of Section 230 have to be carefully crafted and targeted to address big tech’s egregious failures,” he told POLITICO in June. “General prohibitions on speech and free expression have to be avoided.”

Senate lawmakers have proposed a flurry of proposals to revamp the law, including one bipartisan bill to remove liability protections for online businesses that host child porn and another to grant federal and state regulators the power to sue platforms over third-party content that violates federal civil law.

And in rare sign of agreement, both Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden have called for Section 230 to be repealed altogether.

But Democrats and Republicans remain deeply divided over GOP-led efforts to amend the law to address allegations of political bias, which Democrats have blasted as baseless and politically driven. Republicans say social media companies have gone too far in curtailing free speech, while Democrats argue the platforms haven’t done enough to crack down on hate speech, misinformation and other harmful content online.


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