The Trump administration has proposed legislation to limit the broad immunity enjoyed by technology groups over online content posted by their users, adding to the mounting scrutiny of Big Tech from the US government.
The Department of Justice on Wednesday sent draft legislation to Congress that would weaken parts of Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, the landmark law that has underpinned the growth of the modern internet.
Though the legislation is unlikely to be taken up by a divided Congress just weeks before the presidential election in November, the legislative package reflects how companies like Facebook and Google face bipartisan suspicion of their power and influence.
“For too long Section 230 has provided a shield for online platforms to operate with impunity,” said William Barr, the US attorney-general. He urged Congress to reform the law to “hold online platforms accountable both when they unlawfully censor speech and when they knowingly facilitate criminal activity online”.
Social media platforms including Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, which is owned by Google, have been at the centre of an ongoing controversy about the sorts of content that should be allowed on their websites.
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Republicans have railed against the companies for banning rightwing figures from their platforms, claiming they are suppressing free speech, while liberals have argued the websites need to do more to clamp down on extremist and false content.
The companies have always denied any anticonservative bias, but have adopted different stances on the extent of their responsibility to police content on their platforms.
The DoJ’s proposal to legislators builds on a sweeping plan first announced by the Trump administration in June to reform the rules around social media and hold companies more accountable.
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. Today, businesses like Facebook and Google are among the most valuable in the world, controlling large swaths of online communication.
The proposed legislative changes include stripping immunity for “truly bad actors”, such as platforms that host content that violates the law. It also takes aim at websites that censor legal but offensive content, excluding companies from certain immunities if they did not act in “good faith”.
This would “limit immunity for content moderation decisions to those done in accordance with plain and particular terms of service and accompanied by a reasonable explanation”, the justice department said.
President Donald Trump was on Wednesday set to meet with Republican state attorneys-general at the White House to discuss “protecting consumers from social media abuses”.
Meanwhile, the justice department is also moving towards a possible antitrust lawsuit against Google, with state attorneys-general set to be briefed on the case on Wednesday afternoon.
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