WASHINGTON (AP) — The Justice Department proposed Wednesday that Congress roll back legal protections for online platforms, putting legislative form to President Donald Trump’s war against Twitter and other social media companies.
The proposed changes announced by the Trump administration would strip some of the long-held protections of companies such as Facebook, Google and Twitter shielding them generally from legal responsibility for what people post on their platforms.
“When it comes to issues of public safety, the government is the one who must act on behalf of society at large. Law enforcement cannot delegate our obligations to protect the safety of the American people purely to the judgment of profit-seeking private firms,” Attorney General William Barr said in a statement.
The legislative changes would ensure that the internet companies’ legal immunity becomes an incentive for them “to be responsible actors,” Barr said. They “are targeted at platforms to make certain they are appropriately addressing illegal and exploitive content while continuing to preserve a vibrant, open, and competitive internet.”
In a politically charged flourish last month, Trump signed an executive order challenging the protections from lawsuits under a 1996 telecommunications law that have served as a bedrock for unfettered speech on the internet.
Trump lashed out at Twitter for applying fact checks to two of his tweets. He said the fact checks were “editorial decisions” by Twitter amounting to political activism — and that such actions should cost social media companies their liability protection for material posted on their platforms. He accused Twitter of interfering in the 2020 presidential election.
But Trump, with an estimated 60 million followers on Twitter, has weaponized the platform to verbally eviscerate opponents and promote himself. He has long accused the tech giants in liberal-leaning Silicon Valley of targeting conservatives by fact-checking them or removing their post
Tech industry groups have opposed the Trump initiative, saying it would stifle innovation and speech on the internet.
The companies are granted liability protection under the 1996 Communications Decency Act because they are treated as “platforms,” rather than “publishers,” which can face lawsuits over content. Without that shield, companies could face lawsuits from people who feels wronged by something someone else has posted.
One of the administration’s requests is that Congress strip the civil immunity protections for tech companies that may be complicit in unlawful activity on their platforms. For example, the proposal would remove the legal protection if an online platform purposefully solicited third parties to sell illegal drugs to minors, exchange sexually explicit photos or video of children or engage in other criminal activity.
The Justice Department said its proposals are aimed “at incentivizing platforms to address the growing amount of illicit content online, while preserving the core of Section 230’s immunity for defamation.”
The administration contends that the broad immunity should not apply to companies that don’t “respect public safety by ensuring its ability to identify unlawful content or activity occurring on its services,” according to a department memo obtained by The Associated Press.
“Further, the provider must maintain the ability to assist government authorities to obtain content (i.e., evidence) in a comprehensible, readable, and usable format pursuant to court authorization (or any other lawful basis),” the document says.
The big tech companies already are under close scrutiny by regulators and in Congress following a stream of scandals, including Facebook’s lapses opening the personal data of millions of users to Trump’s 2016 campaign. Regulators at Justice and the Federal Trade Commission, and a House Judiciary subcommittee, are pursuing antitrust investigations of Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple.