The U.S. Justice Department today sent Congress draft legislation intended to limit the scope of Section 230, a legal shield that gives online platforms immunity against certain types of lawsuits. 

Section 230 is a statute in the Communications Decency Act that protects companies such as Facebook Inc. from being held legally liable for user content. It allows tech firms to remove a post without the risk of being sued if they deem it to be “obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing or otherwise objectionable.” Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have called for Section 230 to be revised amid a broader debate in Washington about social media.

The change proposed by the Justice Department today consists of several points. First, the draft legislation seeks to narrow the criteria that tech companies must meet to qualify for the Section 230 legal shield. Under the proposal, an online platform could lose liability protections if it doesn’t follow its own content moderation policies consistently or fails to give users an adequate explanation when restricting their access to its platform.

Likewise, a company could stop being eligible for Section 230 protections if it’s aware of illicit activity on its platform and fails to report it. The bill also contains certain legal exceptions that would allow users to launch civil lawsuits against online platforms if they host illicit content on their services. 

“For too long Section 230 has provided a shield for online platforms to operate with impunity,” said Attorney General William Barr said in a statement.  “Ensuring that the internet is a safe, but also vibrant, open and competitive environment is vitally important to America.”

The Internet Association, a trade group that represents tech giants such as Facebook and Google LLC, said in a statement to CNBC today that “it is because of, not in spite of Section 230 that so many voices from across the political spectrum can express their thoughts online.” 

The Justice Department’s proposed legislation will need to be approved by lawmakers to go into effect. The bill is seen as unlikely to pass this year if Congress decides to adopt it and, moreover, a group of lawsuits are currently pursuing a separate effort to change Section 230. 

Image: Unsplash

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