WASHINGTON – The Justice Department on Wednesday submitted a bill to Congress to reduce legal protections for platforms like Facebook and YouTube. This is the Trump administration's recent effort to rethink the law as the president claims these companies are opposed to conservative voices.
The original law, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, makes it difficult to sue online platforms over the content they host or the moderation. As part of the proposed changes, technology platforms that intentionally enable “harmful criminal activity” would not receive protection, the department said. Platforms that allow “known criminal content” to be kept up to date once they know it exists would lose protection for that content.
Attorney General William P. Barr issued a statement calling on lawmakers "to begin holding online platforms accountable both when they unlawfully censor speech and when they knowingly facilitate monstrous criminal activity online." (While protected from some civil lawsuits, section 230 does not protect online services from federal criminal liability.)
President Trump and his allies have made criticism of key technology platforms a regular topic of conversation in his re-election campaign, attacking companies for anecdotal examples of the removal of conservative content from online platforms. The companies have denied that political bias is involved in removing posts, photos and videos.
On Wednesday, the president met with Republican attorneys general to discuss "social media censorship," said the association, which works on behalf of Republican attorneys general. In May, Mr Trump issued an executive order designed to urge some federal agencies to make changes to the law.
"In the past few years, a small group of powerful technology platforms has increased its impact on trade and communications in America," Trump said at the event.
The legislation proposed by the Justice Department on Wednesday, which emerged from the agency's recommendations this year, is unlikely to move forward in the coming months. The pace of Congress tends to slow down before Election Day, and the Senate is staring at a heated ratification battle for a new Supreme Court Justice.
The bill also includes a language designed to restrict the circumstances under which content moderation platforms are protected. These changes could result in the platforms taking legal liability for the elimination of certain political speeches.
But there's a growing group of critics who say Section 230 enabled Silicon Valley to take a dangerous, hands-off approach to social media. Joseph R. Biden Jr., the Democratic presidential candidate, said it should be "revoked". Legislators from both parties have put in place measures that would change the protection, even though neither has really gained a foothold in Congress.
In 2018, Congress changed Section 230 so that the protection did not cover platforms that knowingly facilitated sex trafficking. Proponents of this change say it suppressed online trading. However, critics say the change made it harder for sex workers to safely screen potential clients, which puts them at higher risk.
Online platforms and their Washington agents say Section 230 played an important role in helping free speech flourish online and was an integral part of Silicon Valley's rapid growth. Without the protection, it would be impossible to maintain the extent of the Internet economy. They also refer to Section 230's protection for content moderation to argue that the law allows them to monitor their platforms.
“It's not about stopping crime. It's about advancing political interests, ”said Carl Szabo, vice president of NetChoice, a trading group that represents Google and Facebook. "We are essentially giving the courts an incredible amount of power to decide what is and isn't appropriate for people who go online."
The conservative attacks on Section 230 are based on complaints that platforms such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter are cracking down on conservative content. Mr Trump has wondered about cases where Twitter, for example, has classified his tweets as potentially misleading.
Despite allegations of right-wing censorship, conservative publications and numbers have consistently dominated the high-performing posts rankings on Facebook and have built engaging followers on video platforms like YouTube.
In late May, not long after Twitter first checked his tweets, Mr Trump signed an executive order calling on the Department of Commerce to petition the Federal Communications Commission to narrow the scope of Section 230. A few months later, the Department of Commerce filed its petition asking the FCC to determine that a platform is unprotected when moderating or searching for user content based on a "reasonably discernible point of view or message without the user being prompted, asked or searched for" are highlighted.
It is unclear what the FC, which is an independent regulator, will do with the petition. Brian Hart, a spokesman for the FC, said he had no information on the status of the petition.