The Justice Department on Wednesday urged Congress to adopt new legislation that could punish Facebook, Google and Twitter for a wide array of harmful content posted online, threatening to erode a long-cherished legal immunity that Silicon Valley says is critical to the future of the Internet.

The new legislation would target Section 230, a decades-old portion of law that spares social media sites from being held liable for the posts, photos and videos uploaded to their sites by their users. The proposal would pave the way for steep sanctions on major online platforms if they don’t act to remove a range of illicit content, from child exploitation to terrorism, according to Justice Department officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity Wednesday.

The agency also seeks to force tech giants to be more transparent about their content-moderation decisions and more consistent in their enforcement of them, according to a report the department released Wednesday. The move might offer the U.S. government a new avenue to probe and punish companies over allegations of political bias.

Legal observers described Trump’s executive order as “political theater” and said it did not change existing federal law and would have no bearing on federal courts. Twitter has said attempts to erode the decades-old legal immunity may “threaten the future of online speech and Internet freedoms.”

Twitter put fact-checking warnings on two of Trump’s tweets that claimed, without evidence, that casting ballots by mail allows for voter fraud. Trump said the labels amounted to censorship. Twitter also put a warning label on a Trump tweet about protesters that the company said violated its terms for glorifying violence. The president tweeted that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”

Facebook has taken a different approach, allowing Trump’s posts to stand. CEO Mark Zuckerberg says that while Trump’s posts are upsetting, Facebook should not police what politicians say on the platform. Zuckerberg wrote that “our position is that we should enable as much expression as possible unless it will cause imminent risk of specific harms or dangers spelled out in clear policies.” Zuckerberg’s stance has drawn wide criticism from Facebook employees, lawmakers and civil rights groups.

Todd Horwitz Chief Strategist
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