Sep 24, 2020 - Technology

Justice circles Big Tech with regulatory threats

Illustration of a gavel smashing app icons.
Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

The Department of Justice proposed legislation to curb liability protections for tech platforms and moved a step closer toward an antitrust lawsuit against Google Wednesday.

The big picture: As President Trump faces re-election, lawmakers and regulators are hurriedly wrapping up investigations and circling Big Tech with regulatory threats.

Driving the news: The Justice Department's Wednesday proposal would curb protections for online platforms that host third-party content provided by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act that have been in place for nearly a quarter century.

  • The DOJ also briefed a group of state attorneys general on the status of its long-awaited case against Google for monopolistic behavior, sources familiar with the situation told Axios.

What's happening: Attorney General William Barr promised he'd send a Section 230 proposal to Congress and said he wanted to see a Google suit filed by the end of September. He appears to have achieved the first goal and moved toward the second.

Yes, but: Although efforts to change Section 230 have garnered bipartisan support, Congress is preoccupied with the election, the pandemic, and a Supreme Court vacancy. Any Google suit will likely take years to play out. These projects' fate will almost certainly be determined in the next administration.

How it works: In an unusual move, the DOJ released the text of its own proposed legislation to revamp the Section 230 rules.

  • The proposal would remove legal immunity when platforms facilitate criminal activity or fail to report unlawful conduct, or when platforms don't follow their own content moderation principles "consistently." The proposal would also allow civil suits to be brought against platforms relating to content that promotes online child exploitation and terrorism.
  • Industry groups quickly raised alarms. “Amid a pandemic and an election, undermining the tools social media companies use to respond to problematic content like disinformation is more dangerous than ever," said Matt Schruers, president of the Computer and Communications Industry Association, a trade group that represents major tech companies like Google and Facebook. "The U.S. government should be enabling efforts to address nefarious content and behavior, not hamstringing them in misguided pursuit of political gain.” 

Details: Wednesday afternoon, at a White House gathering for Republican state attorneys, President Trump said his administration was weighing further "concrete legal steps" against platforms it believes censor conservatives.

  • Trump said companies "rig" their terms of service to "mislead or defraud," and urged the AGs to investigate social media companies in their states.
  • "I'm learning what role we can play as state AGs" to support Trump's executive order on social media and the DOJ's proposed Section 230 policy change, South Carolina attorney general Alan Wilson told Axios after the meeting. "We're not all treated fairly in the new virtual town square."
  • "We discussed with the President our commitment to combatting platforms that are unlawfully censoring speech or stifling the voices of individuals based on personal political ideology, which only grows more important as we get closer to Election Day," said Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry.

What's next: The DOJ Section 230 proposal will join a host of other bills circulating in Congress to regulate tech platforms. Barr has reportedly pushed for the delivery of a Google suit by the end of September, which is fast approaching, while prosecutors have sought additional time to strengthen the case.

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