Barr threatens tech’s prized legal shield

Attorney General William Barr is threatening the legal shield that prevents internet companies such as Facebook and Google from facing lawsuits over the extreme, exploitative and sometimes violent posts that circulate on their powerful platforms.

At a Department of Justice (DOJ) workshop devoted to the issue Wednesday, Barr warned that the largest technology firms have hidden behind the 1996 statute to avoid responsibility for “selling illegal and faulty products, connecting terrorists [and] facilitating child sexual exploitation.”

Barr’s comments bolstered the DOJ’s escalating battle against Big Tech. Law enforcement officials have accused the tech titans of obstructing criminal investigations and amassing too much power over the past decade. The DOJ is currently investigating the largest tech firms for antitrust concerns – and Barr said the department’s interest in Section 230 grew out of that probe.

“Online services … have evoked [legal] immunity even where they solicited or encouraged unlawful conduct, shared in illegal proceeds or helped perpetrators hide from law enforcement,” Barr said, placing blame both on the law — Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act — as well as the courts, which have interpreted it broadly in the more than 20 years since it was passed.

Barr delivered the broadside at a DOJ conference about Section 230 that featured some of the law’s most aggressive proponents and detractors. The workshop’s trio of panels featured civil rights activists who argued the law goes too far in protecting the tech companies, lawyers who have represented those companies in court, and experts who have spent years sifting through the law’s far-reaching implications and agree that legislative tweaks are inevitable.