World News

U.S. Justice Dept. plans to hold meeting to discuss tech industry liability: sources

By Mark Hosenball

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Justice Department is planning to hold a conference to discuss the future of a federal law which largely exempts online platforms from legal liability for the material their users post, sources familiar with the plans said on Friday.

A U.S. government source said the department plans to invite a wide range of interested parties to the conference to examine the future of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, including representatives of industry, Congress, “thought leaders” and officials of President Donald Trump’s Cabinet.

The 24-year-old law has been a foundation for many internet companies, enabling Facebook Inc , Google’s YouTube, and Twitter Inc to host large amounts of videos, messages and documents while monitoring for offensive language and imagery in only limited fashion.

All three companies did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

U.S. Attorney General William Barr said in a speech last month that the Justice Department was “studying Section 230 and its scope” because “many are concerned that Section 230 immunity has been extended far beyond what Congress originally intended.”

Barr said internet companies had absolved themselves of responsibility for policing their platforms, while blocking political speech with impunity.

Lawmakers from both the Republican and Democratic parties have called for Congress to change Section 230 in ways that could expose tech companies to more lawsuits or significantly increase their costs.

Some Republicans have expressed concern that Section 230 prevents them from taking action against internet services that remove conservative political content, while a few Democratic leaders have said the law allows the services to escape punishment for harboring misinformation and extremist content.

But several legal experts have said amending Section 230 would harm free expression on the internet.

The tech publication The Information reported on Friday that the department was planning to hold what it described as a Section 230 “workshop” in February. But the source familiar with the government’s plans said a date for the event has not yet been fixed.

Emma Llansó, director of the Free Expression Project at the Center for Democracy & Technology, said the Justice Department is considering holding public panels and private meetings, according to an invitation she received this week.

Several professors across the United States who study laws around speech and expression on the internet were invited to the event, according to five people asked to attend. Two said they had not been given details on the event’s timing, participants or format.

(Reporting By Mark Hosenball; additional reporting by Paresh Dave and Katie Paul in San Francisco; editing by Diane Craft and Jonathan Oatis)