KEY POINTS

  • Facebook, Google, and Twitter would then be held more responsible for content on their sites
  • DOJ said tech has advanced dramatically since 1996 when laws were passed concerning controversial internet content
  • Tech firms operating landscape is changing around the globe

The U.S. Justice Department will propose to Congress on Wednesday that it limit legal protections afforded to internet companies over content on their platforms that could be considered harmful or illicit.

Big names like Facebook (FB), Google parent Alphabet (GOOG) and Twitter (TWTR) would then be held more responsible for content on their sites, the Wall Street Journal reported.

In June of this year, the Trump Administration and DOJ spelled out some policy proposals designed to compel internet firms to better monitor and manage illicit content.

Referring to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 – which provides immunity to online platforms from civil liability based on third-party content and for the removal of content in certain circumstances – the DOJ said that Congress originally enacted the statute to “nurture a nascent industry while also incentivizing online platforms to remove content harmful to children.”

However, as technology has rapidly advanced since 1996, DOJ noted, online platforms are now “both immune for a wide array of illicit activity on their services and free to moderate content with little transparency or accountability.”

As such, DOJ determined that the “time is ripe to realign the scope” of Section 230 with the “realities of the modern internet.”

“Every year, more citizens – including young children – are relying on the internet for everyday activities, while online criminal activity continues to grow,” DOJ warned. “We must ensure that the internet is both an open and safe space for our society.”

Among other things, DOJ proposed to exempt from immunity “particularly egregious content,” including child exploitation and sexual abuse, terrorism, and cyber-stalking.

Since June, the DOJ has slightly altered its policy proposals – for example, internet companies would now have immunity if they remove content that promotes violent extremism or self-harm.

The Wall Street Journal conceded that passing new legislation on social media abuses will be very difficult in a divided Congress ahead of what is expected to be a turbulent president election. Congress is already grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic, a stalled new stimulus package and a growing fight over a replacement for Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

“Congress could take up the proposal or others like it next year,” the Journal added. “Both Democrats and Republicans say they want to review the legal protections internet companies enjoy, though they have differing concerns.”

Abishur Prakash is a geopolitical futurist at the Center for Innovating the Future, a strategy consulting firm based in Toronto. He told International Business Times that both political parties in the U.S. are coming out with their own ideas for regulating “Big Tech.”

“Central to all the ideas is two things: internet dominance and industry monopolies,” he said. “By redesigning Section 230, the U.S. is ensuring that internet companies take on more responsibility for how they monitor and manage content. Of course, during the election season, this is crucial.”

What’s taking place with Section 230 is part of a bigger shift for tech firms, he noted.

“Their operating landscape is changing,” he said. “[Previously], they transcended borders and were not under stringent regulation. Now, from Australia to India to Europe, governments are clamping down on tech firms in their own ways. This is changing the business model and profitability of these firms.”

Prakash also said there’s geopolitical component to this issue.

“As the U.S. government seeks to change Section 230 and moderate online content, [Chinese-owned video sharing app] TikTok has launched a similar initiative,” he said. “Now, a western government and a Chinese tech firm are eyeing the same thing. This could be a new flashpoint.”