Mar 10, 2020 - Technology

DOJ official floats reining in tech companies' ability to censor

A photo of Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen standing at a microphone.

Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images.

A top Justice Department official suggested Tuesday that tech's prized liability shield could be changed to limit online platforms' ability to censor content.

The big picture: DOJ officials including Attorney General Bill Barr have expressed concerns about the reach of Section 230. His deputy now contends tech companies may be using the law as a “blank check” to remove lawful speech, echoing GOP claims that platforms disproportionately target conservative content for deletion.

Driving the news: Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen said in a speech Tuesday that there are several areas that are "potentially ripe for engagement" when it comes to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects online companies against lawsuits over content posted by their users.

  • One area, Rosen noted, is that Section 230 specifically gives platforms the ability to remove content they believe is "obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing or otherwise objectionable."
  • But he said the DOJ has heard this gives platforms a "blank check" to remove content and suggested the broad term "otherwise objectionable" be reconsidered.
  • "Of course, platforms can choose whether or not to remove any content on their websites," Rosen told attendees at the Free State Foundation's annual telecom policy conference in D.C. "But should they automatically be granted full statutory immunity for removing lawful speech and given carte blanche as a censor if the content is not obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent or harassing under the statute?"

Between the lines: The debate over how political speech is treated online arose during the Justice Department's private session on Section 230 in February, the Washington Post reported. A DOJ recommendation to rewrite the statute to address concerns about platforms stifling certain political speech would be a strong signal to Congress.

Go deeper: Justice Department takes aim at Big Tech's shield

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