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AG Barr Signals Willingness to Crack Down on Big Tech ‘Titans’

Attorney General William Barr testifies before a Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., May 1, 2019. (Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters)

Attorney General William Barr suggested Wednesday that Section 230, Clinton-era legislation which shields tech platforms from liability for content posted by third-party users, should be revised to accommodate the new realities of social media.

Speaking at a DOJ “workshop” on the statute, Barr laid out the need for a “holistic approach” to the “complex and multi-dimensional” issues of the modern internet, while stipulating that the Department “is not here to advocate for a position.”

While he avoided specific policy prescriptions, Barr did assert that Section 230, as it is currently constructed, is unable to address “the myriad online harms” posed by giant social media conglomerates.

“No longer are tech companies the underdog upstarts; they have become titans of US industry. Given this changing technological landscape, valid questions have been raised on whether Section 230’s broad immunity is still necessary, at least in its current form,” Barr said. “ . . . Technology has changed in ways that no one, including the drafters of Section 230, could have imagined.”

The attorney general cited censorship, monopolization, and police powers as policy areas that Section 230 is ill-equipped to address, and suggested that policymakers’ understanding of the internet at the time of Section 230’s passing — as a “forum for a true diversity of political discourse, unique opportunities for cultural development, and myriad avenues for intellectual activity” — is no longer viable in the age of big tech consolidation.

“Over time, however, the avenues for sharing information and engaging in discourse have concentrated in the hands of a few key players,” Barr explained. “ . . . The early days of online public bulletin boards, like AOL, have been replaced by platforms with sophisticated content moderation tools, algorithms, recommendation features, and targeting.”

Barr added that Section 230’s dissolution of “civil tort law” in the online sphere made it harder for the DOJ to effectively enforce criminal law.

“We are concerned that internet services, under the guise of Section 230, can not only block access to law enforcement — even when officials have secured a court-authorized warrant — but also prevent victims from civil recovery,” Barr argued. “ . . . Giving broad immunity to platforms that purposefully blind themselves – and law enforcers – to illegal conduct on their services does not create incentives to make the online world safer for children.  In fact, it may do just the opposite.”

Last month, Barr sparred with tech giant Apple over the company’s refusal to unlock the iPhone of the Pensacola naval base shooter, after the attorney general called the shooting “an act of terrorism.”

“When it comes to issues of public safety, the government is the one who must act on behalf of society at large,” Barr concluded Wednesday. “Law enforcement cannot delegate our obligations to protect the safety of the American people purely to the judgment of profit-seeking private firms. We must shape the incentives for companies to create a safer environment, which is what Section 230 was originally intended to do.”

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