The Justice Department (DOJ) has submitted a proposal to Congress on Wednesday that seeks to curtail liability protections for internet companies to force them to manage and moderate content on their platforms responsibly and fairly.
The proposal calls on Congress to update Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which largely provides immunity for 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 currently allows companies to block or screen content “in good faith” if they consider it “obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable.” But in recent years, the legal protections afforded have been used to shield online platforms that engage in “censoring” or “political conduct,” the Trump administration has asserted.
The attorney general also added that courts have also played a part in expanding the scope of the immunity for internet companies by interpreting Section 230 broadly. The immunity, Barr said, reaches far beyond speech torts such as defamation and has been known to be invoked in cases where the online platform knew their services were being used for criminal activity, for example.
The DOJ says the proposals aim to achieve two goals: to prevent the censorship of lawful speech in bad faith by requiring online platforms to moderate content fairly and consistent with their own terms of service and to encourage platforms to address illicit content.
Some of the proposals include replacing vague terms such as “otherwise objectionable” with more specific language "promoting terrorism, promoting violent extremism, promoting self-harm, and unlawful" in order to prevent broad interpretations of the law.
The department also proposed a number of exclusions to the immunity including platforms that promote, facilitate, or solicit content that would violate federal criminal law, have actual knowledge that specific content it is hosting violates federal law, and fails to remove such content after receiving a court order.
The legislative proposals also limit immunity to online platforms who do not abide by its own terms of service and public representations by failing to consistently apply their terms of service.
The tech industry has been resisting efforts to revamp or repeal Section 230, saying that the DOJ proposals could limit people's ability to express themselves and feel open online.
Trump met with a number of state attorneys general on Wednesday to discuss concerns about censorship and cancel culture on online platforms. The Trump administration and state top law enforcement officers discussed ways states could combat deceptive and misleading online practices.