Attorney General Barr blasts big tech, raising prospect that companies could be held liable for dangerous, viral content online

U.S. Attorney General William Barr (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Afp Via Getty Images)

ByTony Romm
Feb. 19, 2020 at 8:49 a.m. PST

U.S. Attorney General William P. Barr on Wednesday blasted big tech, raising the specter that Silicon Valley might soon be held accountable for a wide array of dangerous, harmful content that critics say has flourished on their sites and services.

At an event that laid bare tech’s broad troubles — including the spread of terrorism, illicit drug sales and child sexual exploitation online — Barr said it may be time for the government to seek sweeping changes to a key portion of federal law, known as Section 230, that long has spared 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 the statute. “They have become titans.”

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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 hinderances, preventing law enforcement and aggrieved web users from obtaining justice when people are harmed.

For all their ability to connect people across borders, Facebook, Google and other popular sites and services also have served as conduits for hate speech and extremism. They’ve unwittingly housed graphic, viral videos of recent mass shootings, including the deadly attack in Christchurch, New Zealand last year. They’ve become marketplaces for the sale or promotion of guns, drugs and fake medical cures. And they’ve been weaponized to spread misinformation and undermine elections, including in the United States. Often, they’re able to dodge direct punishment even when their technologies are used to enhance the reach of such harmful material.

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 the sort of content moderation governments seek — without being sued for the decisions they make about the posts they leave up or take down.

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But Barr — who cautioned he had not come to a final position on whether Section 230 should be significantly revised or repealed — still highlighted its “expansive reach,” a comment that could encourage members of Congress who have floated similar suggestions about changes to the law.

“The department has the responsibility to keep up with changes in technology to protect our citizens from these new harms, while at the same time preserving the benefits of this new technology,” the attorney general said.

The Justice Department has been exploring Section 230 as part of a wide-ranging probe of Facebook, Google and other companies, an inquiry that’s also studied whether those firms have become too big, powerful and anti-competitive. DOJ officials have signaled they plan to put forward recommendations — and potentially bring individual cases against companies — before the end of the year.

Amid withering criticism, many in the industry have emphasized their recent work to improve their policies, hire more people to review content and take swifter, more aggressive action to ensure users aren’t harmed. Yet their assurances have failed to assuage regulators even beyond Washington: Throughout the European Union, for example, policymakers have contemplated a raft of fines and other punishments in the event Facebook, Google and their peers fail to prevent or disable dangerous posts, photos and videos in real time.

The regulatory threat has grown so dire that Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg even paid a rare visit to Brussels on Monday. Ahead of his visit with EU officials, the social-networking giant articulated its own beliefs about regulation, arguing in a white paper that laws that “punish the publication of illegal speech are unsuitable for the internet landscape.”

But the idea appeared to find an icy reception among the European Commission, where some members have pushed the social-networking giant to play a more active, aggressive role in policing the web for harm. “Facebook cannot push away all the responsibility,” Vera Jourova, the EU vice president for values and transparency, told reporters.

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In Washington, meanwhile, top officials on Wednesday sought to make their own case about the need for Facebook, Google and their peers — with vast reach and once-unfathomable profits —to be held accountable for their role in facilitating the spread of dangerous posts, photos and videos.

“We’re constantly reminded that the same technology that facilitates free speech, connect with our loved ones and our friends and enriches our lives, can pose serious dangers,” said FBI Director Christopher Wray to open an event on Section 230.

“Certainly, more can be done,” responded Matt Schruers, the president of the Computer & Communications Industry Association, in a later panel discussion. The group represents Amazon, Facebook, Google and other tech companies, and joined a day-long session convened by the Justice Department focused on the future of the law.

“But I don’t think we should assume the misconduct of a few bad actors is generalizable across a large industry," Schruers added.

Carrie Goldberg, an attorney who specializes in sexual privacy violations, offered one example of the potential harm from her own case work: A plaintiff whose ex repeatedly created fake profiles of him on Grindr, a gay dating app, putting him at risk for assault.

The ex would “post my client’s geographic information, and then send people” to his home and workplace, looking for sex, Goldberg said. The plaintiff repeatedly flagged the issue to Grindr, to no avail, and a subsequent lawsuit fell short of holding the company accountable in court. Grindr prevailed by invoking Section 230, she said.

“They see Section 230, and all the case law over the past few decades. . . as a pass," Goldberg continued, “and take no action whatsoever.”