Barr suggests big tech 'titans' no longer need legal shield

Pete Williams

WASHINGTON — Attorney General William Barr said Wednesday that big online platforms such as Facebook and Google may no longer need the legal protection that helped foster innovation on the internet by preventing technology companies from being sued.

He questioned whether a federal law, adopted in 1996 to shield what was then a young tech industry, is out of date. "No longer are tech companies the underdog upstarts. They have become titans of U.S. industry," he said at a seminar organized by the Justice Department.

The subject was a provision of the law known as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, widely praised by advocates of internet freedom. It says providers of internet services cannot be held legally responsible for content posted by users.

At the start of the internet revolution, Barr said, internet companies functioned like community bulletin boards. But now, he said, online platforms have "sophisticated content moderation tools, algorithms, recommendation features and targeting."

"With these new tools, the line between passively hosting third-party speech and actively curating or promoting speech starts to blur," he said.

The attorney general said the law puts a range of illegal conduct beyond the reach of the courts, including selling illegal or faulty products, connecting terrorists and facilitating child exploitation.

Once the darlings of Washington, companies such as Google, Facebook and Twitter are facing growing calls from both parties to take more responsibility for the content they spread. And other countries are pressing for similar reforms.

This week, the European Union rejected a proposal from Facebook for regulating online content and instead said social media companies should take more responsibility for weeding out illegal material.

Opponents of government restrictions on the internet strongly defend Section 230. The Electronic Frontier Foundation said it has made possible a burst of creativity in online videos, consumer reviews, classified ads and social connections. The law "offers its legal shield to bloggers who act as intermediaries by hosting comments on their blogs,” the nonprofit digital rights group said in a statement.

Federal courts have broadly interpreted the law to block lawsuits against online platforms. A New York City man, Matthew Herrick, lost his court battle against the gay dating app Grindr over his claim that an ex-boyfriend impersonated him on the app and solicited rough sex. During a 10-month period, Herrick said, more than 1,400 men came to his apartment and job site demanding sex.

Courts have also thrown out lawsuits against online gun dealers brought by victims of mass shootings in which the attackers bought their weapons over the internet.

Barr said he has reached no conclusions, but he suggested he would favor some changes in the law. He said the question is "whether these incentives are working or whether they need to be recalibrated."