US DoJ readies proposal to weaken protections for tech companies

The US Department of Justice is set to propose weakening broad legal protections for online platforms over content published by their users, adding further pressure to big technology companies under fire from the Trump administration.

The proposals could come as early as Wednesday and will advocate rolling back some of the immunities offered to websites by Section 230, a piece of legislation passed in 1996 when the internet was still in its infancy.

Although any such move would require action by Congress, the proposal by the justice department will lay out one path to weaken Section 230, including stripping legal immunity for third-party content relating to the sale of illegal drugs, cyberstalking or child exploitation.

The justice department will also seek to force platforms to do more to justify their content moderation practices, and eliminate protections against antitrust claims related to content removal. 

The Wall Street Journal first reported news of the proposals from the justice department. A justice department official confirmed the report.

Section 230 was first passed as part of the Communications Decency Act to give nascent websites protection from lawsuits over content their users had published, for example on message boards.

It was designed to encourage websites to engage in content moderation by removing the risk they could be sued as a publisher if they actively controlled what their users published.

More recently, the law has come under attack by Donald Trump and Republicans who complain technology giants like Facebook, Twitter and Google are censoring their views.

Mr Trump last month issued an executive order requiring a wide-ranging government review of Section 230 after Twitter put warnings and fact-check notices on several of his tweets. 

However, the question over whether Section 230 should be updated has bipartisan support, given the changes in the online economy since 1996 when it was first put into law.

One potential obstacle to any updates to Section 230 is its inclusion in US trade deals, including the recent USMCA agreed between the US, Canada and Mexico.

Josh Hawley, a Republican senator from Missouri who has been an outspoken critic of big technology companies, introduced a Senate bill on Wednesday that would remove Section 230 immunity for large companies unless they “bind themselves contractually to a duty of good faith”.

It would allow users to sue for $5,000 in damages, or more if actual damages are higher, if a platform discriminated against them in enforcing their terms of service.

The bill — which is backed by three other Republican senators: Marco Rubio, Mike Braun and Tom Cotton — would apply only to websites with more than 30m users in the US, or 300m worldwide, and has more than $1.5bn in global revenue.