GOP senator introduces bill to hold online platforms liable for political bias

GOP senator introduces bill to hold online platforms liable for political bias
© Stefani Reynolds

Sen. Josh HawleyJoshua (Josh) David HawleyTech critics on both sides have it wrong: Section 230 is not a special privilege Hillicon Valley: Senators unload on Facebook cryptocurrency plan | Trump vows to 'take a look' at Google's ties to China | Google denies working with China's military | Tech execs on defensive at antitrust hearing | Bill would bar business with Huawei Google official denies allegations of ties to China MORE (R-Mo.), who has sought to make a name for himself as one of the Republican Party's sharpest tech critics, is introducing legislation that would chip away at the legal shield preventing online companies from being held liable for content posted by their users.

Hawley on Wednesday will introduce a bill requiring companies to prove they are politically "neutral" before they receive protections under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA), which largely gives internet platforms legal immunity over content posted on their sites by third parties.  

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The Missouri Republican's legislation comes after Republican lawmakers for more than a year have threatened to gut Section 230 over allegations that the top social media companies in the world are biased against conservatives, a claim that the tech companies have categorically denied and say has not been substantiated by any evidence. 

The Ending Support for Internet Censorship Act would require "big tech companies" to submit to external audits conducted by the Federal Trade Commission to prove their algorithms and content moderation practices are not biased against either U.S. political party. It would require the companies to undergo audits every two years.

Big tech companies in the bill are defined as those with more than 30 million active monthly users in the U.S., more than 300 million active monthly users worldwide, or companies with more than $500 million in global annual revenue. 

“With Section 230, tech companies get a sweetheart deal that no other industry enjoys: complete exemption from traditional publisher liability in exchange for providing a forum free of political censorship,” Hawley said in a statement. “Unfortunately, and unsurprisingly, big tech has failed to hold up its end of the bargain." 

Hawley pointed to a "growing list of evidence" that tech companies are "making editorial decisions to censor viewpoints they disagree with." He said the process is "shrouded in secrecy because these companies refuse to make their protocols public." 

Hawley, along with Republicans including Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzTed Cruz: 'Fox News went all in for Trump' 2 Republican senators introduce resolution to label antifa as domestic terrorists Ted Cruz: Trump's chances of winning reelection are '50-50' MORE (Texas) and most notably President TrumpDonald John TrumpChelsea Clinton announces birth of third child Ukrainian officials and Giuliani are sharing back-channel campaign information: report Trump attacks 'the Squad' as 'racist group of troublemakers' MORE, have pointed to individual anecdotes of conservative posts or accounts being removed to substantiate their claims that right-wing perspectives are routinely discriminated against online.

The tech industry and libertarian groups are already mobilizing against Hawley's bill, defending Section 230 of the CDA as the provision that has empowered the internet and slamming Hawley's legislation as enabling government censorship of speech.

"Senator Hawley’s misguided legislation sets the table for stricter government control over free expression online," Billy Easley, policy analyst with the Koch-backed group Americans for Prosperity, said in a statement. "Eroding the crucial protections that exist under Section 230 creates a scenario where government has the ability to police your speech and determine what you can or cannot say online."

"Senator Hawley has argued that some tech platforms have become too powerful, but legislation like this would only cement the market dominance of today's largest firms," Easley added. 

The Internet Association, Silicon Valley's top tech trade group, in its own statement said Section 230 "is the law that allows online companies to moderate and remove content that no reasonable person wants online – including content that could have a 'political viewpoint.' " 

"This bill forces platforms to make an impossible choice: either host reprehensible, but First Amendment protected speech, or lose legal protections that allow them to moderate illegal content like human trafficking and violent extremism," Internet Association president and CEO Michael Beckerman said in a statement. "That shouldn't be a tradeoff."  

Congress most recently carved out a Section 230 last year after a drawn-out battle with the tech industry. The bill, commonly referred to as SESTA or FOSTA, made internet platforms liable for any content facilitating sex trafficking. 

Hawley's bill is not likely to become law, but it marks the first significant piece of legislation out of the Senate addressing allegations of political bias against conservatives by tech companies.