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Registrars could be held liable for US gun violence

Kevin Murphy, August 20, 2019, 12:53:27 (UTC), Domain Policy

A US presidential candidate has come out in support of amending the law to make domain name companies liable when customers use their services to incite violence.

Beto O’Rourke, a former member of Congress, stated last week that he wants to amend the Communications Decency Act to hold providers of “domain name servers” liable “where they are found to knowingly promote content that incites violence”.

He’s believed to be the first among the swarm of 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls to lay out a plan to combat online hate speech.

The proposed amendments to Section 230 of the CDA are part of a sweeping package of reforms O’Rourke is proposing in order to tackle gun violence and domestic terrorism in the US.

He comes from El Paso, Texas, which was the target of a race-based terrorist attack a couple of weeks ago.

He’s also pushing for stricter gun controls, such as compulsory licensing and training.

But I’m not going to get into that stuff here. This is a blog about domain names. I’m British, so you can probably guess what my opinion on guns is.

In terms of online content, O’Rourke’s plan seems primarily aimed at getting the big social media platforms to more heavily moderate the content produced by their users.

But it specifically calls out domain name companies also:

Beto would require large internet platforms to adopt terms of service to ban hateful activities, defined as those that incite or engage in violence, intimidation, harassment, threats, or defamation targeting an individual or group based on their actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, ethnicity, immigration status, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation or disability. These companies also would be required to put in place systems designed to identify and act on content violating the terms of service. Platforms must be transparent when they block content and provide for an appeal process in order to guard against abuse.

Beto supports amending Section 230 of the CDA to remove legal immunity from lawsuits for large social media platforms that fail to change their terms of service and put in place systems as described above. Informational service providers of all sizes, including domain name servers and social media platforms, also would be held liable where they are found to knowingly promote content that incites violence.

Should registrars be worried about this?

If the legal test was that registrars “knowingly promote content that incites violence”, that seems like a pretty high bar.

I’m not convinced even Epik, which has come under fire for providing domain services to the likes of Stormfront and 8chan — both of which O’Rourke cites in his policy — “knowingly promotes” incitements to violence.

That’s not to say that registrars couldn’t find themselves prosecuted or sued anyway, of course.

O’Rourke is not a current front-runner in the Democrat presidential pack. While still in the race, he’s towards the bottom of the top 10, polls suggest.

What O’Rourke’s policy statement does suggest is that the regulation of online speech could become a significant issue in the 2020 election, and that the domain name industry in the US could find itself a political football in an extremely divisive game.

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