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Barr Questions Lawsuit Immunity for Tech Firms

A 1996 law that protects operators of online platforms from liability for user-posted content may no longer be necessary, the attorney general says.
Matthew HellerFebruary 20, 2020
Barr Questions Lawsuit Immunity for Tech Firms

U.S. Attorney General William Barr has questioned whether operators of online platforms should continue to be protected from being sued over content posted by their users.

According to Barr, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which provides immunity from liability for providers of an interactive computer service who merely publish misleading or harmful content, was designed to shield a fragile, emerging tech sector when it was enacted in 1996.

But tech companies are no longer “the underdog upstarts,” Barr said Wednesday at a Justice Department workshop. “They have become titans.”

“Given this changing technological landscape, valid questions have been raised about whether Section 230’s broad immunity is necessary at least in its current form,” he added.

Barr noted that tech platforms have gone beyond hosting public bulletin boards by serving content to users through algorithms and other mechanisms. “With these new tools, the line between passively hosting third-party speech and actively curating and promoting speech starts to blur,” he said.

The attorney general said the Justice Department would not advocate a position at the meeting. But Reuters said his comments “offered insight into how regulators in Washington are reconsidering the need for incentives that once helped online companies grow but are increasingly viewed as impediments to curbing online crime, hate speech and extremism.”

“Lawmakers from both major political parties have called for Congress to change Section 230 in ways that could expose tech companies to more lawsuits or significantly increase their costs,” Reuters noted.

A Barr ally in Congress, South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham has been working on a bill that would make companies “earn” Section 230 immunity by showing they were making certain efforts to combat child sexual exploitation material online.

Matt Schruers, president of the Computer and Communications Industry Association, which counts Google and Facebook among its members, said at the workshop that law enforcement’s energies might be better spent pursuing the millions of tips that the tech industry sent over every year, only a small fraction of which, he noted, resulted in investigations.

“There appears to be some asymmetry there,” he said.

Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images

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