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Politics

‘The world Section 230 built’: Strong words and no consensus at fiery DOJ debate

At the Department of Justice's first workshop about Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, there were no easy answers.

Attorney General William Barr

Attorney General William Barr, seen here at the State of the Union Address, kicked off the workshop with a rebuke of the existing law.

Photo: Leah Millis-Pool/Getty Images

The tension inside the wood-paneled auditorium at FBI headquarters was palpable from the start.

There, lawyers for the Department of Justice hosted a fiery debate on Wednesday with tech insiders, academics and government officials about one of the internet's most foundational laws, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects online businesses from being held liable for what other people post on their sites. As Congress and courts across the country consider whether to protect or overhaul it, the DOJ invited leading voices from both sides of the debate to share their perspectives. After hours of contentious discussion that turned, at times, ugly and even downright rowdy, the room remained as divided as ever about what should happen next.

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Attorney General William Barr kicked off the event with a rebuke of the law, but even before that, factions had formed as guests took their seats around the room.

On one side were activists like Gretchen Peters, executive director of the Center on Illicit Network and Organized Crime, who has called on Congress to amend Section 230 so that tech platforms can be held accountable for hosting organized crime networks. "Half of these people have their salaries paid for by Google and Facebook," Peters told Protocol, dismissing some of the lobbyists on the day's lineup as "tech stooges."

On the other were people like Alex Stamos, executive director of Stanford's Internet Observatory and Facebook's former chief security officer, who noted on Twitter that the speaker lineup was, in fact, devoid of people who actually worked in tech.

This is the world Section 230 built. — Mary Anne Franks, University of Miami School of Law professor

Wednesday's agenda was stacked with activists and legal experts working hard to put a face to the victims of crimes facilitated by online platforms. Lawyer Carrie Goldberg told the story of her client whose ex used the dating app Grindr to send more than 1,000 men to his home and workplace to role play rape fantasies. Her client sued Grindr, arguing the company had failed to take action even after he repeatedly reported his ex's accounts to them. But that case was dismissed under Section 230.

"I'm very opinionated about the fact that Section 230 is broken, putting all of us in danger, and there needs to be a fix," Goldberg said.

Yiota Souras, senior vice president and general counsel for the National Center of Missing and Exploited Children, explained that last year, her organization received 17 million reports to its cyber tip line, containing 69 million pieces of child sexual abuse material. The vast majority of those tips came from gigantic companies like Facebook that have developed extensive screening processes for that type of imagery. But, Souras noted, none of that screening is required by law, meaning there are endless other platforms that don't moderate or report this type of content at all.

"The moderation that's being done at the most sophisticated level is tremendously helpful to solve the problem, but it's completely voluntary," she said. "It's a little terrifying to think about that."

Mary Anne Franks, a professor at the University of Miami School of Law, meanwhile, argued that Section 230 has given cover to platforms like Facebook when they allow people to broadcast mass shootings and rapes on Facebook Live.

"This is the world Section 230 built," Franks said.

But the panels also included fierce defenders of the law, including Kate Klonick, an assistant professor at St. John's University, who fired back at Franks' comments in one particularly contentious exchange. "Mark Zuckerberg didn't murder a person in Cleveland. He didn't commit these rapes. What he did was he made them transparent to everyone," Klonick said. "We can see how terrible we all are. And now you want the tech companies to clean it up for you."

Klonick's remarks prompted a spontaneous burst of applause from the audience.

Of course, for the Department of Justice and for Congress, it hardly matters if these legal scholars get along. The workshop was, for the most part, a bit of virtue signaling from an agency that has already made clear its desire to claw back some of the power that Section 230 confers on tech platforms. Barr didn't hold back about his interest in rethinking the law, particularly as it pertains to encrypted messaging platforms.

"Giving broad immunity to platforms that purposefully blind themselves and law enforcement to illegal conduct on their services does not create incentives to make the online world safer for children," Barr said. "In fact, it may do just the opposite."

It's still unclear what the future holds for the tech industry's favorite law. What is clearer than ever after Wednesday's workshop: It won't happen without a fight.

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Issie Lapowsky (@issielapowsky) is a senior reporter at Protocol, covering the intersection of technology, politics, and national affairs. Previously, she was a senior writer at Wired, where she covered the 2016 election and the Facebook beat in its aftermath. Prior to that, Issie worked as a staff writer for Inc. magazine, writing about small business and entrepreneurship. She has also worked as an on-air contributor for CBS News and taught a graduate-level course at New York University’s Center for Publishing on how tech giants have affected publishing. Email Issie.
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