U.S. Attorney General William P. Barr on Wednesday blasted big tech, questioning whether Silicon Valley for too long has dodged accountability for dangerous, harmful content posted on their sites and services.
Ticking off a long list of troubles – including the spread of terrorism, illicit drug sales and child sexual exploitation – Barr said it may be time for significant changes to a key portion of federal law, known as Section 230, that shields tech companies from liability for content posted by their users.
“No longer are tech companies the underdog upstarts,” Barr said in a speech, reflecting on the origin of a decades-old law once meant to protect web platforms in their infancy. “They have become titans.”
Barr’s shot at Silicon Valley offers the latest evidence that regulators in Washington – Democrats and Republicans alike – believe some of the federal safeguards that helped incubate the Internet have become liabilities, preventing law enforcement and aggrieved web users from obtaining justice when people have been harmed online.
Lobbyists from Facebook, Google and other online platforms have fought vigorously to protect their prized legal shield, arguing it actually gives them legal cover to do content moderation without being sued for the decisions they make about the posts they leave up or take down.
On Wednesday, Barr cautioned that officials had not come to a final position on whether Section 230 should be significantly revised or repealed. But he sought to highlight its “expansive reach,” a comment that could encourage members of Congress who have floated similar suggestions about changes to the law.
The Justice Department has been exploring the law as part of a wide-ranging probe of Facebook, Google and other companies, an inquiry that’s also probed whether those firms have become too big, powerful and anti-competitive.