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No More Immunity? Justice Department Wants Tech Companies To Have Legal Responsibility For Content Posted On Their Platforms

No More Immunity? Justice Department Wants Tech Companies To Have Legal Responsibility For Content Posted On Their Platforms

The United States Department of Justice held a workshop discussing Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act on Wednesday that grants technology companies immunity from legal actions arising from content published by third-parties on their platform.

The Takeaways

Attorney General William Barr, who was delivering opening remarks at the "Section 230: Nurturing Innovation or Fostering Unaccountability?" said that the situation has long changed since the law was instituted in 1996, and the internet isn't in a nascent stage any longer.

"At that time, almost 25 years ago, immunity was seen as vital to protecting new technology in its incipiency," Barr said in his speech. "Today, online platforms have become essential to Americans' daily lives, often serving as the primary conduit for how we receive and share information."

"No longer are tech companies the underdog upstarts; they have become titans of US industry," Barr added on why questions are being raised on Section 230 continuing in its current form.

The matter has come under intense scrutiny over the role of social media companies, especially larger ones like Facebook Inc. (NASDAQ: FB), Twitter Inc (NYSE: TWTR), and Alphabet Inc. (NASDAQ: GOOGL) (NASDAQ: GOOG) in combating illicit content, including false political advertisements, hate speech, sexual harassment, and child sexual content.

Bipartisan lawmakers have called for amendments to the law in a way that would expose the internet-based communications companies to more legal action related to the content on their platform.

A lot of these actions are taken keeping in mind the larger or the more rogue smaller websites, but not medium-sized companies like Reddit, Craigslist, or Wikipedia, which don't have the finances of the larger companies but have a dedicated user base.

Patrick Carome, one of the panelists on the Justice Department debate, argued that "Section 230 is not just for ‘big tech," as reported by Reuters earlier.

The medium-sized companies can't afford to "operate with armies of moderators or sophisticated automation," he argued.

Nebraska Attorney General noted that the companies don't have immunity from federal criminal prosecution, but only protests against civil claims or state-level prosecution. The law should be modified to change the latter, he argued.

The panelists also discussed the limitations of encryption, including tackling child sexual abuse content in encrypted messages.

Towards the end of his speech, Barr noted that the law enforcement authorities couldn't delegate the task of protecting the "safety of the American people" to private companies whose primary motive is to maximize profits for their shareholders.

"We must shape the incentives for companies to create a safer environment, which is what Section 230 was originally intended to do," Barr noted. "The question for us, and for this Workshop, is whether those incentives are working or whether they need to be recalibrated."


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