Barr Concerned About Tech Giants’ Censorship of User Content

June 22, 2020 Updated: June 22, 2020

Attorney General William Barr said it was necessary for the Trump administration to become tough on internet companies who censor certain user viewpoints on their platforms because it was important to preserve a wide diversity of voices.

“There’s something very disturbing about what’s going on,” Barr said during an interview on Fox News’ “Sunday Morning Futures” on Sunday while expressing his concern over the business practices of some influential companies. “To some extent, there was a bait and switch over the past couple of decades.”

Barr explained that at the beginning these companies acted like bulletin boards attracting people from diverse viewpoints to join their platforms. This allowed them to build a large membership and a strong market share. But more recently, some of these companies “switched.”

“These companies held themselves out as open to all comers. That’s how they built up all their membership and their networks, saying, you know, we have a wide variety of views. People can come in and post their views and their positions and their statements,” he said. “Then they have switched. Now they’re being more selective, and they’re starting to censor different viewpoints.”

His comments come after the Justice Department (DOJ) pushed Congress to adopt a series of proposed changes to Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act that would curtail broad legal protections for online platforms in an effort to push tech companies to address illicit material while moderating content responsibly.

Section 230 largely exempts online platforms from liability for content posted by their users, although they can be held liable for content that violates anti-sex trafficking or intellectual property laws.

The law allows companies to block or screen content “in good faith” if they consider it “obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable.” The protections, however, weren’t intended to apply to services that act more like publishers than online platforms, Barr said in a speech in May.

“Unfortunately, they started taking down viewpoints and started really being selective and, based on whether they agreed with a viewpoint or not, taking it down,” Barr said. “And that should make them a publisher.”

However, these companies were coming back claiming immunity under section 230. “That was one of the problems that was arising under Section 230,” he said.

This is “a fundamental problem,” Barr said, because the republic was founded on “the idea and the whole rationale was that there would be a lot of diversity of voices.” This would make it hard for  individuals to “galvanize a big faction in the United States that could dominate politically and oppress a minority.”

“And yet now we have, with the Internet and with these big concentrations of power, the ability to do just that, to quickly galvanize people’s views, because they’re only presenting one viewpoint, and they can push the public in a particular direction very quickly,” he said. “And our whole Constitution and system was based on not having that, and having a wide diversity of voices.”

The move to roll back legal protections for internet companies was the latest in an ongoing clash between the Trump administration with big tech companies such as Twitter and Facebook. President Donald Trump signed an executive order on May 28 directing federal agencies to develop regulations that protect users from unfair or deceptive content restriction practices employed by online platforms.

The DOJ said its legislative proposals would “update the outdated immunity for online platforms” under section 230. The department wants online platforms to be tough on illicit material while policing user content fairly.

The department encouraged lawmakers to consider four areas for reform including incentivizing online platforms to address illicit content, promoting open discourse and greater transparency, clarifying federal government enforcement capability, and promoting competition.

Some of the department’s recommendations include denying section 230 immunity to “truly bad actors,” which it describes as “an online platform that purposefully facilities or solicits third-party content or activity that would violate federal criminal law.”

The department also suggested carving out exemptions to immunity protection for platforms who are willfully blind to egregious content, including child exploitation and sexual abuse, terrorism, and cyber-stalking.

The reforms will also seek to encourage platforms to be more transparent and accountable to their users by clarifying the text and reviving the original purpose of the law.

Barr’s comments come against the backdrop of incidents where conservative voices have been stifled by internet companies. Last week, NBC News claimed that Google had demonetized two conservative-leaning news outlets, The Federalist and ZeroHedge, having blocked them from making money from Google ads.

Following the claim, Google pushed back in a statement saying that “The Federalist was never demonetized.” Google said the issue wasn’t with any of the articles The Federalist published, but rather users’ comments on its website.

“As the comment section has now been removed, we consider this matter resolved and no action will be taken,” Google said in the statement.

The incident prompted lawmakers to demand answers from Google over its censorship. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said Google’s conduct had raised “serious concerns that Google is abusing its monopoly power in an effort to censor political speech with which it disagrees. (pdf)”

Bowen Xiao and Petr Svab contributed to this report.

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