US Attorney General asks whether Facebook, Google should be held liable for user posts

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Washington –  US Attorney General William Barr on Wednesday questioned whether Facebook, Google and other major online platforms still need the immunity from legal liability that has prevented them from being sued over material their users post.

“No longer are tech companies the underdog upstarts. They have become titans,” Barr said at a public meeting held by the Justice Department to examine the future of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

“Given this changing technological landscape, valid questions have been raised about whether Section 230’s broad immunity is necessary at least in its current form,” he said.

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act says online companies such as Facebook Inc, Alphabet Inc’s Google and Twitter Inc cannot be treated as the publisher or speaker of information they provide. 

This largely exempts them from liability involving content posted by users, although they can be held liable for content that violates criminal or intellectual property law.

Barr’s comments offered insight into how regulators in Washington are reconsidering the need for incentives that once helped online companies grow but are increasingly viewed as impediments to curbing online crime, hate speech and extremism.

The increased size and power of online platforms has also left consumers with fewer options and the lack of feasible alternatives is a relevant discussion, Barr said, adding that the Section 230 review came out of the Justice Department’s broader look at potential anticompetitive practices at tech companies.

Lawmakers from both major political parties have called for Congress to change Section 230 in ways that could expose tech companies to more lawsuits or significantly increase their costs.

Some Republicans have expressed concern that Section 230 prevents them from taking action against internet services that remove conservative political content, while a few Democratic leaders have said the law allows the services to escape punishment for harboring misinformation and extremist content.

Barr said the department would not advocate a position at the meeting but would listen to stakeholders. Doug Peterson, attorney general of Nebraska, said at the meeting that the law limits investigations into online crimes such as human trafficking, child sexual exploitation, drug sales, consumer fraud. 

“Some of the online providers who we feel are culpable or have aided and abetted that, should not be able to say they are safe or immune due to Section 230.”

Some speakers urged keeping the law in place but working with companies to bolster initiatives to report crimes, work with law enforcement and hire more people to review content.

Matt Schruers, president of the Computer and Communications Industry Association, which counts Google and Facebook as members, said “there is no question more investment can and should be done in this area… but I don’t think the misconduct by some bad actors can be generalised across the board”.

Others such as Kate Klonick, a professor at St John’s University Law School in New York, said here is a “huge difference” between the handful of big platforms and the millions of online sites that facilitate harmful content on their platform.

“There is a moment in techlash that is happening right now, in which it seems easy to gang up on big online platforms.” 

She said big platforms, especially Facebook, have taken robust steps to tackle harmful content in the past few years. Klonick, whose website says she is an affiliate fellow at Yale University Law School’s Information Society Project, said she does not represent any big tech company. 

Reuters