The Justice Department (DOJ) urged lawmakers to consider taking up proposals to update a federal law that provides liability protections to internet companies against being sued for their users’ posts.
Assistant Attorney General Stephen E. Boyd sent a letter to congressional leaders on Oct. 27, reiterating the urgency to effect reforms to Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, while citing the recent suppression of a series of exposés by the New York Post about the alleged business dealings of Hunter Biden, son of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.
“The events of recent days have made reform even more urgent,” Boyd wrote in the letter (pdf) obtained by media outlets. “Today’s large online platforms hold tremendous power over the information and views available to the American people. It is therefore critical that they be honest and transparent with users about how they use that power. And when they are not, it is critical that they can be held accountable.”
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, Attorney General William Barr said in a speech in May.
The Trump administration has been vocal about the need to change Section 230 in order to force internet companies to manage and moderate content on their platforms responsibly and fairly. They have accused online platforms such as Facebook and Twitter of engaging in censorship of certain viewpoints.
Boyd also cites a statement by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who criticized lower courts for expanding the application of Section 230 to confer sweeping immunity for online platforms. He characterized those decisions as having “emphasized nontextual arguments” during their interpretation.
“Extending Section 230 immunity beyond the natural reading of the text can have serious consequences,” Thomas wrote in his statement (pdf).
Boyd also said that online platforms have changed the way they operate since 1996 and no longer function as “simple forums for posting third-party content.” They are instead “employing sophisticated algorithms to suggest and promote content and connect users.”
“Whether by amending the existing text of Section 230 or starting from scratch, legislative proposals should consider these realities. Congress may also wish to consider that legislative changes to the existing text should clearly overrule erroneous precedent that has built up around Section 230 over the last 25 years—something which striking all of Section 230 and starting on fresh canvas would not have to contend with,” he wrote.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have repeatedly raised concerns about the way internet companies handle disinformation and hate speech and have called on Congress to amend Section 230.
Several lawmakers have since proposed ways to amend the law, including Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), whose “Limiting Section 230 Immunity to Good Samaritans Act” aims to hold internet companies accountable for censoring political speech and hiding content created by competitors.
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.