Republican Senator Josh Hawley introduced a bill on Wednesday requiring big tech platforms to be certified as “politically neutral” in their content moderation practices by the Federal Trade Commission. Without the certification, tech companies would no longer be automatically immune from lawsuits claiming harm from content posted to their sites by users.
That immunity is provided by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which shields tech companies from liability for an array of harmful user content, including defamatory, threatening, or illegal content, or content that divulges trade secrets. Section 230 also protects them from lawsuits over content they remove during moderation.
Hawley’s bill focuses on stopping unfair or politically biased moderation. Like many Republicans, Hawley believes left-leaning tech companies like Twitter, Google, and Facebook may be actively removing right-wing viewpoints.
“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,” the GOP Senator from Missouri said.
Hawley’s bill, called the Ending Support for Internet Censorship Act, would make the Section 230 protections contingent upon the tech companies’ political neutrality. It would have the Federal Trade Commission perform an audit of large tech companies’ content moderation algorithms and practices, then hold a vote on whether to certify their platform as politically neutral. A supermajority of FTC commissioners (four out of five) would have to vote in favor of certification.
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“This legislation simply states that if the tech giants want to keep their government-granted immunity,” Hawley said, “they must bring transparency and accountability to their editorial processes and prove that they don’t discriminate.”
The bill exempts smaller tech companies. The FTC certification would be required only of companies with 30 million monthly active users, 300 million total users worldwide, and more than $500 million in global annual revenue.
The subject of de-platforming and bias against right-wing opinions on the web has been a staple of Congressional hearings related to technology over the past year.
“Look, there’s a lot of anecdotal evidence out there, a lot of circumstantial evidence, as we lawyers like to say, of de-platforming of conservative voices, of targeting of conservatives,” Hawley said in a recent interview with Fast Company. “Now, the platforms all say, ‘No, no, no, we’re not doing that; we’re just using our standard protocols.'”
Section 230 was added to the Communications Decency Act in 1996 after being introduced by then-Representative Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Rep. Chris Cox (R-CA). The two were concerned that the legal liability for user content could drown young tech companies in lawsuits before they had a chance to grow.
After Hawley’s bill is introduced in the Senate, it will be referred to a committee, likely the Commerce Committee. Hawley is interested in finding potential co-sponsors for the bill, possibly on the Democratic side.