GOP steps up attack over tech bias claims

GOP steps up attack over tech bias claims

Republicans are coming after Silicon Valley’s legal protections.

A lawsuit from Rep. Devin NunesDevin Gerald Nunes Sunday shows preview: Leaders weigh in as country erupts in protest over George Floyd death The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - George Floyd's death sparks protests, National Guard activation Hillicon Valley: Trump signs order targeting social media legal protections | House requests conference with Senate after FISA vote canceled | Minneapolis systems temporarily brought down by hackers MORE (R-Calif.) and fresh attacks from President TrumpDonald John TrumpTwitter CEO: 'Not true' that removing Trump campaign video was illegal, as president has claimed Biden formally clinches Democratic presidential nomination Barr says he didn't give 'tactical' command to clear Lafayette protesters MORE are giving momentum to a conservative push to gut the law that gives companies immunity for content posted by their users.

Conservatives see the changes as essential to combating what they say is anti-conservative bias and censorship by the tech industry.

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Republicans brought new attention to the controversy this week when Nunes sued Twitter and several of its users for defamation. The lawmaker alleged Twitter users were allowed to insult him online because the company has a left-wing bias.

And Trump on Tuesday promised to look into an aide’s allegation that he was censored by Facebook, accusing social media companies of being “on the side of the Radical Left Democrats.”

Social media platforms have repeatedly denied that they are censoring conservatives and there is little evidence to back up Republicans’ claims of being “shadow banned,” or having their posts hidden from other users. Last week, a federal judge appointed by Trump threw out a lawsuit from right-wing activists alleging that social media companies were discriminating against conservative voices.

But the fight over bias is putting a spotlight on a part of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, Section 230, which largely gives internet platforms legal immunity over content posted on their sites by third parties.

Proponents of the law say that it has helped grow the modern internet economy built on user-generated content and was designed to protect against lawsuits like Nunes’s.

Now, a growing chorus of Republican voices want changes to the law in order to hold internet giants liable for the content on their platforms and how they moderate users.

“You’re neutral platforms; nobody is holding you responsible for what you put up, nobody is holding you responsible for what you take down,” Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamBill aims to help farmers sell carbon credits Graham postpones Russia probe subpoena vote as tensions boil over Graham pushes back on Mattis criticism of Trump: 'You're missing something here, my friend' MORE (R-S.C.), the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, told an executive from Google at a hearing last week.

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“But that’s a big advantage in the law. If you have a newspaper, or a TV station, you can be regulated and you can be sued.”

A spokesman for Graham did not respond when asked if the senator plans to hold hearings or push legislation on the issue.

For Nunes, the law’s language means his bias suit against Twitter faces long odds.

Carl Szabo, the general counsel for NetChoice, a trade group representing internet companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter, said on Tuesday that Nunes’s case is unlikely to succeed.

“This lawsuit underscores the importance of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act which empowers platforms to host content and discussions of our elected officials — whether our elected officials like it or not,” Szabo said in a statement.

“Twitter has been an amazing forum for discussing — and yes, criticizing — our public officials, hopefully this lawsuit doesn’t undermine that. The ability to criticize our public officials is core to our American principles.”

Proponents of the law are arguing that any changes would have dire consequences. And the GOP’s arguments are unlikely to sway Democrats at a time when they have criticized tech companies for not cracking down enough on right-wing extremists — especially in the wake of the massacre targeting two mosques in New Zealand last week.

Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenCBO releases analysis on extending increased unemployment benefits Overnight Health Care: Hydroxychloroquine ineffective in preventing COVID-19, study finds | WHO to resume hydroxychloroquine clinical research | WHO says no evidence coronavirus is mutating Bipartisan lawmakers press Trump administration to get COVID-19 aid to Medicaid providers MORE (D-Ore.), who helped author Section 230, believes that any attacks on the law will disrupt users’ ability to express themselves freely online.

“Donald Trump, Devin Nunes and [Texas Sen.] Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzFormer Trump adviser Jason Miller to join reelection campaign Texas Republicans call on county GOP chair to resign for saying Floyd's death was staged Rosenstein takes fire from Republicans in heated testimony MORE are proving exactly why Section 230 is so essential – without protections, all online media would face an onslaught of bad-faith lawsuits and pressure campaigns from the powerful in an effort to silence their critics,” Wyden said in a statement to The Hill.

“The fact is, social media companies should be doing more to clean up their platforms, not less,” he added. “Calls for government regulation of online speech and the business practices of private corporations run counter to everything conservatives claim to believe.”

It’s the second time in as many years that lawmakers have sought to change the law.

Congress carved out an exception to Section 230 last year after a contentious fight with the tech industry. A bill commonly referred to as SESTA or FOSTA made internet platforms liable for any content facilitating sex trafficking.

But critics worry that the carveout and any future amendments could undermine good-faith efforts by platforms to police their content.

The attacks on the law come at a difficult time for the tech industry, with its key players already under scrutiny in Washington on a number of fronts.

Democrats are pushing for tougher data privacy regulations and antitrust enforcement against the biggest companies.

For Republicans, momentum is building for targeting Section 230, which many see as an attractive way to rein in the industry.

Sen. Josh HawleyJoshua (Josh) David HawleyGOP shifting on unemployment benefits as jobless numbers swell Rosenstein takes fire from Republicans in heated testimony Republicans turning against new round of ,200 rebate checks MORE (R-Mo.), a freshman lawmaker who has already become one of the GOP’s biggest tech critics, recently called Section 230 a “sweetheart deal” that allowed Silicon Valley to grow exponentially without concern for their platforms’ effect on society.

For Hawley and other conservatives, the law is at the heart of their fight against perceived bias.

“We need to look at look at this cozy relationship between Big Tech and big government,” Hawley said at the Conservative Political Action Conference earlier this month. “Because government has given tech this special status. That’s why we are where we are.”

Eric Goldman, a law professor at Santa Clara University, dismissed the idea that conservatives were the unique targets of bias on social media platforms.

He said targeting the tech industry’s legal protections would be “one of the most aggressive forms of regulation that government could pursue.”

Republicans, though, see the actions of tech companies as unfair — and want to level the playing field.

Trump’s social media manager, Dan Scavino, on Monday said Facebook had temporarily blocked him from commenting on his own posts.

The company said it inadvertently restricted Scavino’s account because it noticed a burst of “identical, repetitive activity” that led the company to believe it was coming from a bot.

But those explanations are not enough for Republicans.

“I will be looking into this,” Trump vowed on Twitter.