The Justice Department is preparing to roll back the legal protections big tech companies have used to shield themselves from lawsuits over their content, a move that comes after President Donald Trump threatened to shut them down over what he says is bias against conservatives.
The reforms would make companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter more liable for a wide array of content posted on their sites.
And it would also push those companies to be more aggressive in addressing harmful conduct on their sites, The Wall Street Journal reported, and to be fairer and more consistent in their decisions to take down or downplay content.
The plan from the Justice Department involves legislative reform to the law known as Section 230 – the original legal code governing the internet – so it would have to be adopted by Congress, including approval from the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives to become law.
It would say that the companies have to show they acted in ‘good faith’ when they removed or downplayed content for being ‘objectionable.’ Currently they are essentially free to act as they wish.
Conservatives say they have used that discretion to censor or downplay material from right-leaning websites, a row which exploded Tuesday when Google threatened to demonetize The Federalist, a conservative website founded by Meghan McCain’s husband Ben Domenech.
Another part of the proposal would make them more liable for content related to child exploitation and terrorism.
Justice Department is preparing to roll back the legal protections big tech companies have used to protect themselves from lawsuits; President Trump has been one of the companies leading critics
Twitter added its second warning to a Donald Trump tweet in four days by covering the president’s message about the Minneapolis riots with a comment that it ‘glorifies violence’
Twitter posted a blue exclamation mark alert underneath two of Trump’s tweets about potential for fraud with mail-in voting, a move that infuriated the president and led to the administration attempting to crack down on big tech companies
If passed the proposal would change decades of legal protection enjoyed by social media companies.
The move is the next step in the administration’s war on big tech over claims of anti-conservative bias, and comes after President Trump signed an executive order at the end of May that limited the companies’ legal protections.
But legal experts said the president’s order would likely have little effect on tech companies. It was immediately challenged in court.
A change in law pushed by the Justice Department would have greater impact.
Democrats and Republicans have found rare common ground in attacking Section 230. The law, adopted in the the 1990s, is seen by both sides as out of date in governing the rapidly evolving internet.
That law gave big tech companies immunity from lawsuits that would have threatened the existence of the then-infant companies but now it protects the online giants from liability.
Democrats complain the law allows social media companies to spread political falsehoods, disinformation, and hate speech while Republicans claim it allows the stifling of conservative voices.
The president has been one of big tech’s biggest critics on the matter, claiming the companies silence conservative voices.
‘We’re here today to defend free speech from one of the gravest dangers it has faced in American history, frankly,’ Trump said in the Oval Office on May 28 when he signed the order. ‘A small handful of powerful social media monopolies control the vast portion of all private and public communications in the United States.’
That order came after Twitter marked some of tweets as needing more information, a move that infuriated the president.
The debate over the president tweets highlights the struggle social media platform have as they try to balance freedom of speech with cracking down on misinformation.
The Justice Department’s proposal would strip big tech companies of the civil immunity they have in a number of areas, including third-party content or activity that violates federal criminal law or situations involving online child exploitation and sexual abuse, terrorism or cyberstalking.
It would also make clear the companies don’t have immunity in civil enforcement actions brought by the federal government, and can’t use immunity as a defense against antitrust claims, The Journal reported.
Additionally, Republican Senator Josh Hawley, a close ally of President Trump, introduced legislation that would allow users to sue social media platforms over accusations of censorship of political speech.
A user could sue any large platform – with more than 30 million users in the U.S. in a month – that are not ‘operating in good faith’ for $5,000 and attorneys’ fees.
Under current law, tech platforms are generally not legally liable for the actions of their users, except in rare, small cases. The social media companies also have a broad ability to police their sites of content as they see fit.
Republican Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri, a close Trump ally, proposed legislation that would allow conservatives to sue social media companies if they feel their voices are being stifled
Twitter’s fact checking of two Trump tweets – which made false claims about absentee voting – sparked the president’s fury and his threat against them.
‘Republicans feel that Social Media Platforms totally silence conservatives voices,’ Trump tweeted after the fact checking took place. ‘We will strongly regulate, or close them down, before we can ever allow this to happen. We saw what they attempted to do, and failed, in 2016. We can’t let a more sophisticated version of that…. happen again.’
Twitter later red-flagged another Trump tweet, one he wrote about the Minneapolis riots in the wake of George Floyd’s death, claiming that it ‘glorifies violence’.
His tweet saying that ‘when the looting starts, the shooting starts’ was hidden by a warning that it violated Twitter’s rules – but the message can be bypassed and the tweet remains live.
The Federalist is run by Meghan McCain’s husband Ben Domenech
Trump has a large online presence. His Facebook page has more than 28 million followers and he has more than 82 million followers on Twitter.
The Justice Department’s proposal also comes as NBC News is under fire for appearing to influence Google to punish two conservative news sites over what was deemed offensive coverage of the protests that sprung up after Floyd’s death.
The network reported on Tuesday that Google ‘banned’ The Federalist and ZeroHedge from Google Ads for ‘pushing unsubstantiated claims’ about the Black Lives Matter movement.
Google, however, said The Federalist ‘was never demonetized.’
‘We worked with them to address issues on their site related to the comments section,’ the company said.
However, it appears it was NBC News’ inquiry that led to Google’s action with The Federalist, an American conservative online magazine run by Meghan McCain’s husband.
NBC was reporting on a study about online hate done by a British non-profit and noted in its report: ‘Google blocked The Federalist from its advertising platform after the NBC News Verification Unit brought the project to its attention. ZeroHedge had already been demonetized prior to NBC News’ inquiry, Google said.’
Conservatives jumped on Google, accusing it of bias.
Meghan McCain tweeted: ‘Google is now trafficking in digital fascism. How soon until all conservative speech and publications are completely banned?’
Donald Trump Jr. said the company was trying to have it ‘both ways’ by on the one hand seemingly trying to hold The Federalist accountable for comments posted on its site while shirking responsibility for what appears on its own search results page – something that has recently been called into question by the president as tech giants’ way of getting out of being sued.
And, in a letter to Google on Monday night, Republican Senator Ted Cruz said Google’s actions ‘raise serious concerns that it is abusing its monopoly power in an effort to censor political speech with which it disagrees’.
Cruz demanded Google turn over all correspondence it had with NBC, the think tank and all communications between staff about The Federalist.
Meghan McCain’s husband runs The Federalist. She tweeted that the company was trafficking ‘in digital fascism’
Donald Trump Jr. piled into the debate, saying big tech ‘wants to have it both ways’
‘Google seems more than happy to play this censorship role by trying to break the financial back of a media publication with which it disagrees.
‘Whether or not one agrees with this characterization, destroying the publisher’s ability to use advertising to reach willing readers should be wholly beyond the pale,’ Cruz continued.
He said it was indicative of the ‘bigger problem’ that ‘the culture of free speech in this country is under attack.’
‘Google is helping lead the charge,’ he went on.
The company has in the past been accused of promoting left-wing sites over right-wing counterparts but insists its algorithms are impartial.
SECTION 230: THE LAW TRUMP IS TAKING AIM AT OVER CLAIMS OF SOCIAL MEDIA BIAS
Twenty-six words tucked into a 1996 law overhauling telecommunications have allowed companies like Facebook, Twitter and Google to grow into the giants they are today.
Those are the words President Donald Trump challenged in an executive order Thursday, one that would strip those protections if online platforms engaged in ‘editorial decisions’ – including, in the president’s view, adding a fact-check warning to one of Trump’s tweets.
Under the U.S. law, internet companies are generally exempt from liability for the material users post on their networks. Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act – itself part of a broader telecom law – provides a legal ‘safe harbor’ for internet companies.
But Trump and other politicians argue that Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms have abused that protection and should lose their immunity – or at least have to earn it by satisfying requirements set by the government.
Section 230 probably can’t be easily dismantled. But if it was, the internet as we know it might cease to exist.
Just what is Section 230?
If a news site falsely calls you a swindler, you can sue the publisher for libel. But if someone posts that on Facebook, you can’t sue the company – just the person who posted it.
That’s thanks to Section 230, which states that ‘no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.’
That legal phrase shields companies that can host trillions of messages from being sued into oblivion by anyone who feels wronged by something someone else has posted – whether their complaint is legitimate or not.
Section 230 also allows social platforms to moderate their services by removing posts that, for instance, are obscene or violate the services’ own standards, so long as they are acting in ‘good faith.’
Where did Section 230 come from?
The measure’s history dates back to the 1950s, when bookstore owners were being held liable for selling books containing ‘obscenity,’ which is not protected by the First Amendment. One case eventually made it to the Supreme Court, which held that it created a ‘chilling effect’ to hold someone liable for someone else´s content.
That meant plaintiffs had to prove that bookstore owners knew they were selling obscene books, said Jeff Kosseff, the author of ‘The Twenty-Six Words That Created the Internet,’ a book about Section 230.
Fast-forward a few decades to when the commercial internet was taking off with services like CompuServe and Prodigy. Both offered online forums, but CompuServe chose not to moderate its, while Prodigy, seeking a family-friendly image, did.
CompuServe was sued over that, and the case was dismissed. Prodigy, however, got in trouble. The judge in their case ruled that ‘they exercised editorial control – so you’re more like a newspaper than a newsstand,’ Kosseff said.
That didn’t sit well with politicians, who worried that outcome would discourage newly forming internet companies from moderating at all. And Section 230 was born.
‘Today it protects both from liability for user posts as well as liability for any clams for moderating content,’ Kosseff said.
What happens if Section 230 is limited or goes away?
‘I don´t think any of the social media companies would exist in their current forms without Section 230,’ Kosseff said. ‘They have based their business models on being large platforms for user content.’
There are two possible outcomes. Platforms might get more cautious, as Craigslist did following the 2018 passage of a sex-trafficking law that carved out an exception to Section 230 for material that ‘promotes or facilitates prostitution.’ Craigslist quickly removed its ‘personals’ section altogether, which wasn’t intended to facilitate sex work. But the company didn´t want to take any chances.
This outcome could actually hurt none other than the president himself, who routinely attacks private figures, entertains conspiracy theories and accuses others of crimes.
‘If platforms were not immune under the law, then they would not risk the legal liability that could come with hosting Donald Trump´s lies, defamation, and threats,’ said Kate Ruane, senior legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union.
Another possibility: Facebook, Twitter and other platforms could abandon moderation altogether and let the lower common denominator prevail.
Such unmonitored services could easily end up dominated by trolls, like 8chan, which is infamous for graphic and extremist content, said Santa Clara University law professor Eric Goldman. Undoing Section 230 would be an ‘an existential threat to the internet,’ he said.
But Goldman doesn’t see the White House order as that kind of threat to the internet, saying it’s ‘political theater’ that will appeal to Trump supporters. ‘The president can’t override Congress,’ he said.
NBC JOURNALIST THANKS BRITISH THINK-TANK FOR ‘COLLABORATING’ TO DEFUND RIGHT-WING SITES
The NBC journalist who wrote the piece which initially seemed to prompt Google’s decision to defund ZeroHedge is Adele Momoko-Fraser.
She quoted a Google spokeswoman who said both ZeroHedge and The Federalist had been stripped of their ability to monetize.
Momoko-Fraser has worked with NBC for six months. Before that, she worked for British TV networks Channel 4 and Sky, but her journalism experience is brief.
She tweeted, after NBC published its story, to thank The for Countering Digital Hate for ‘collaborating’.
She was slammed for her terminology, with some accusing her and the center of silencing free speech.
Momoko-Fraser then tweeted again: ‘To clarify this earlier tweet, we obtained this research exclusively from @SFFakeNews but we did not collaborate on the research itself.’
The account she tagged stands for Stop Funding Fake News.