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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 NunesOvernight Defense: Trump loyalist to lead Pentagon transition | Democrats ask VA for vaccine distribution plan | Biden to get classified intel reports Ex-Nunes aide linked to Biden conspiracy theories will lead Pentagon transition Sunday shows preview: Biden transition, COVID-19 spike in spotlight MORE (R-Calif.) and fresh attacks from President TrumpDonald John TrumpUSAID administrator tests positive for COVID-19 Kamala Harris, Stacey Abrams among nominees for Time magazine's 2020 Person of the Year DOJ appeals ruling preventing it from replacing Trump in E. Jean Carroll defamation lawsuit 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 GrahamClyburn: Biden falling short on naming Black figures to top posts Feinstein departure from top post sets stage for Judiciary fight Spokesperson says Tennessee Democrat made 'poor analogy' in saying South Carolina voters have extra chromosome 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 WydenTwo more parting shots from Trump aimed squarely at disabled workers On The Money: Push for student loan forgiveness puts Biden in tight spot | Trump is wild card as shutdown fears grow | Mnuchin asks Fed to return 5 billion in unspent COVID emergency funds Grassley, Wyden criticize Treasury guidance concerning PPP loans 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 CruzO'Brien on 2024 talk: 'There's all kinds of speculation out there' Ocasio-Cortez, Cruz trade jabs over COVID-19 relief: People 'going hungry as you tweet from' vacation McSally, staff asked to break up maskless photo op inside Capitol 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 HawleyO'Brien on 2024 talk: 'There's all kinds of speculation out there' Democrats brush off calls for Biden to play hardball on Cabinet picks Rush Limbaugh lauds Hawley: 'This guy is the real deal' 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.