Sen. Josh Hawley (R., Mo.) floated a new proposal Tuesday to compel large tech companies to be politically neutral in their content moderation or risk legal liability.
Hawley's bill, the Ending Support for Internet Censorship Act, would revise section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Introduced in 1996, section 230 is the lynchpin of the legal framework governing major social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook. It stipulates that such platforms cannot be treated as the "publishers" of information users post on them, and therefore immunizes them from suits based on the content of those posts.
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This platform status has allowed social media firms to dodge criticism of content they serve, even as they have become increasingly prominent features of American political and public life. In Hawley's view, this excuse has extended too far.
"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. "Unfortunately, and unsurprisingly, big tech has failed to hold up its end of the bargain."
Central to Hawley's bill is perceived left-wing bias on the part of many major firms' employees and content moderation practices. Section 230 stipulates that the internet "offer[s] a forum for a true diversity of political discourse," but many on the right fear that their views are being closed out.
The goal of the ESIC act, then, is to introduce federal oversight to ensure that platforms which enjoy the privileges of section 230 protections are, as Hawley put it, holding up their end of the bargain.
The bill would remove those protections from large tech firms, defined as those with 30 million active monthly users in the United States, or 300 million worldwide, or more than $500 million in global annual revenue. Big tech firms could restore their section 230 protections, but only if the Federal Trade Commission certified that their content moderation practices were politically neutral. The certification would require a supermajority vote of the FTC, and firms would need to renew their certifications every two years.
"There's a growing list of evidence that shows big tech companies making editorial decisions to censor viewpoints they disagree with. Even worse, the entire process is shrouded in secrecy because these companies refuse to make their protocols public," Hawley said. "This legislation simply states that if the tech giants want to keep their government-granted immunity, they must bring transparency and accountability to their editorial processes and prove that they don't discriminate."
Hawley's bill is just the latest shot fired by the freshman senator in his war on big tech. And, like his other shots, it immediately attracted criticism. Americans for Prosperity, a Koch-network policy organization which argues that government regulation of the internet will impinge on liberty and innovation, called the new bill "misguided" and said it "set the table for stricter government control over free expression online."
"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," a release from AFP said. "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. This bill would punish success in the next generation of innovative startups and prevent them from achieving their full potential."