Section 230’s Latest Attacker: The Justice Department
The Department of Justice (DOJ) has submitted to Congress draft legislation that could obliterate legal protections for internet companies and their users. The proposal takes broad aim at Section 230, a (widely misrepresented) law that helps protect First Amendment rights across the internet while also protecting private companies and individuals that want to filter out certain types of content.
Passed in 1996, Section 230 has been under obsessive attack from both Democrats and Republicans for at least the past decade, and especially in recent years, as online ideas, speech, and content became more and more decentralized and less gatekept. Politicians on both sides have proposed actions aimed at incrementally chipping away at the law’s protections. But this new Justice Department draft legislation strikes at Section 230’s very heart in a number of ways.
If the DOJ gets its way, private web service providers—think: social media, video platforms, consumer review sites, online marketplaces, petition and crowdfunding services, dating apps, newspaper comment sections, blogging platforms, private message-boards, and so much more—and the people who use those services could be punished for attempts to filter out objectionable content.
Under the DOJ proposal, employees and users of online services could only “restrict access to” content if “the provider or user has an objective reasonable belief” that a specific piece of content “violates its terms of service or use” or falls into one of a few categories. While the DOJ doesn’t provide an example of content that is currently restricted but that would be unrestricted under the version of Section 230 it wants Congress to pass, it’s possible the new language is meant to appease prominent Republicans who believe popular social media platforms have arbitrarily banned conservatives and that politics-based content shouldn’t be allowed.
As it stands now, a web platform’s “terms of service or use” have no bearing on Section 230 protection—although President Donald Trump acted as if they did in a recent executive order concerning Twitter. Despite what Trump suggested, Twitter doesn’t (yet) risk losing Section 2
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