Attorney General William Barr on Wednesday blasted key legal protections that shield tech companies from liability for dangerous and harmful content posted on their sites.
He said the agency is considering options to scale back or repeal the federal law, known as Section 230, that treats tech companies such as Facebook different from traditional publishers.
Mr. Barr said the law, which was developed to help small startups compete with big tech without fear of being mired in lawsuits, is no longer necessary.
“No longer are tech companies the underdog upstarts,” he said. “They have become titans.”
The attorney general’s remarks came at a Justice Department workshop about the law.
A key portion of federal law, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, maintains that companies cannot be held legally liable for content posted by third parties. It says big tech companies cannot be viewed as publishers, which are legally responsible for publishing harmful content.
Mr. Barr said as tech companies grew bigger, a small number of businesses wound up controlling the public discourse.
The measure was enacted in 1996 to protect tech companies from individuals who use sites to sell illegal products, terrorist propaganda or child pornography.
At that time, tech companies operated more bulletin boards and message groups. In today’s market, tech companies are more active and tailoring content to users through algorithms and other means.
“With these new tools, the line between passively hosting third-party speech and actively curating and promoting speech starts to blur,” he said.
While Mr. Barr hinted changes could be coming, he cautioned that a decision is not imminent. He said the Justice Department needs to determine how to balance business needs with public safety.
“Law enforcement cannot delegate our obligations to protect the safety of the American people purely to the judgment of profit-seeking private firms,” Mr. Barr said. “We must shape the incentives for companies to create a safer environment, which is what Section 230 was originally intended to do.”
Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut Democrat, are working on a bipartisan bill that would revise the law.
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