Proposed Legislation Would Weaken Shields for Social Media

The Justice Department sent Congress draft legislation to weaken Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, leaving Facebook, YouTube and other social media platforms vulnerable to legal action for content posted by users. The proposed changes would create liability for platforms that allow “known criminal content” to remain once they are aware of it. President Trump claims that social media companies are biased against conservatives. The platforms have not been protected against some civil suits.

The New York Times reports that Attorney General William Barr has urged lawmakers to “begin to hold online platforms accountable both when they unlawfully censor speech and when they knowingly facilitate egregious criminal activity online.”

Trump has made “criticism of major tech platforms a regular talking point in his campaign for re-election,” even as these companies deny political bias as a reason for “removing posts, photos and videos.” Trump met with Republican state attorneys general this week to discuss so-called social media censorship.

But the draft legislation proposed by the Justice Department “seems unlikely to move forward in the coming months … [because] the pace of Congress tends to slow ahead of Election Day, and the Senate is staring down a heated confirmation battle for a new Supreme Court justice.”

The draft “includes language that is meant to limit the circumstances under which platforms are protected for moderating content … [which] could lead to the platforms assuming legal liability for taking down certain political speech.”

Trump and conservatives are not the only critics of how Big Tech companies have relied on Section 230. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has also stated that it should be “revoked” and “lawmakers from both parties have introduced measures that would modify the protections, though none have gained real traction in Congress.”

Meanwhile, social media platforms stated that, “Section 230 has played a vital role in allowing free speech to flourish online and has been integral to Silicon Valley’s rapid growth.” Without it, they added, “it would be impossible to sustain the scale of the Internet economy.”

At NetChoice, a trade group that represents Facebook and Google, vice president Carl Szabo stated that, “this is not about stopping crimes; it’s about advancing political interests.” “We’re essentially turning over to the courts an incredible amount of power to decide what is and is not appropriate for people who go on the Internet,” he added.

NYT also notes that, although critics accuse the platforms of censoring right-wing voices, “conservative publications and figures regularly dominate the rankings of high-performing posts on Facebook and have built dedicated followings on video platforms like YouTube.” This current brouhaha over Section 230 began after Twitter fact-checked Trump’s tweets for the first time. Federal Communications Commission spokesperson Brian Hart said the agency had “no update on the status of the petition.”

Related:
Trump Eyes ‘Concrete Legal Steps’ Against Social Media Sites for Alleged Bias Against Conservatives, The Washington Post, 9/23/20