U.S. President Donald Trump speaks next to U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr during a discussion with state attorneys general on social media abuses in the Cabinet Room at the White House in Washington, U.S., September 23, 2020. REUTERS/Tom Brenner

THE NEUTRAL ZONE

The U.S. Department of Justice asked Congress to hold companies such as Facebook, Twitter and Google accountable for what is shared on their platforms. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 currently states that online platforms will not be treated as publishers or speakers, and are therefore not liable for the content shared on their platforms. 

President Donald Trump and other Republicans have frequently accused social media platforms of anti-conservative bias. In May, President Trump considered establishing a panel to examine complaints of bias against conservative voices on social media. In June, he published an executive order requesting reforms to Section 230.

In a letter accompanying the draft legislation, Attorney General William Barr wrote, “Ensuring that the internet is a safe, but also vibrant, open and competitive environment is vitally important to America. We therefore urge 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 criminal activity online.” The draft legislation included a number of reforms aimed at “promoting transparency and open discourse” and “addressing illicit activity online.” Specifically, the proposal would remove platforms’ ability to “censor lawful speech in bad faith” and would remove Section 230 protections for those that modify content on their site in any way. It would also remove liability safeguards for platforms that allow “harmful criminal content” to stay up.

At a White House discussion with Republican state attorneys general about social media, Missouri Senator Josh Hawley said, “Online platforms increasingly control the flow of news from journalists to the American public. So these are incredibly powerful platforms. They need to be held accountable.” Barr similarly emphasized the essential role of online platforms and the need to reform Section 230 as part of “addressing potential abuses.”

Online platforms and their representatives argue that Section 230 plays a key role in allowing free speech to flourish and that removing those protections could harm the internet economy. Carl Szabo, the vice president of NetChoice, a trade group that represents Google and Facebook, said, “This is not about stopping crimes; it’s about advancing political interests. We’re essentially turning over to the courts an incredible amount of power to decide what is and is not appropriate for people who go on the internet.”

A Senate subcommittee plans to vote Oct. 1 on whether to subpoena the CEOs of Google, Facebook and Twitter for a hearing about tech platforms’ legal protections from consumer lawsuits regarding content policing. Senate Commerce Chair Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), originally planned to issue subpoenas Sept. 24, but Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) objected. She said that this is a time in which tech platforms’ efforts “to take down patently false information and hate speech not only need to be supported, but greatly improved in scope and effectiveness.”

MEDIA PERSPECTIVE

Trump’s Justice Department proposes legislation that could end the internet as we know it – Vox – 9/23/2020
Barr is not a fan of Section 230, and his Department of Justice has been looking into the law and how he believes it allows “selective” removal of political speech. This has included a set of recommendations from the Justice Department in June and the legislation proposal sent to Congress on Wednesday. The proposal includes the addition of a “good faith” section requiring platforms to spell out their moderation rules, follow them to the letter, explain any moderation decisions to the user whose content is being moderated, and provide the user with the chance to respond. There are also additional carve-outs that would remove civil lawsuit immunity for material that violates anti-terrorism, child sex abuse, cyberstalking, and antitrust laws.

Section 230’s Latest Attacker: The Justice Department – Reason – 9/23/2020
Passed in 1996, Section 230 has been under obsessive attack from both Democrats and Republicans for at least the past decade, and especially in recent years, as online ideas, speech, and content became more and more decentralized and less gatekept. Politicians on both sides have proposed actions aimed at incrementally chipping away at the law’s protections. But this new Justice Department draft legislation strikes at Section 230’s very heart in a number of ways.

DOJ proposes Section 230 changes to Congress – Axios – 9/23/2020
Legislative proposals changing Section 230 that have come from Congress and the White House (in the form of an executive order) have been criticized by tech policy experts as overly broad or misguided. Some fear that diluting Section 230 protections will make it easier for anyone to get tech platforms to remove all kinds of content that people aim to eliminate.

DOJ to Propose Legislation Targeting Legal Immunities for Internet Companies, in Bid to Curb Illegal Content – National Review – 9/23/2020
The proposal calls for legislation curbing the immunities granted by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which shields internet platforms from legal liability if a user uploads illegal content, such as a defamatory or libelous blog post. The Justice Department hopes that by threatening to revoke this immunity in certain cases and open up internet companies to potentially damaging lawsuits, Congress can essentially compel those companies to institute practices and policies that are better for the civic health of the country.

INFLUENCER PERSPECTIVE

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