Conservatives on Capitol Hill have spent more than a year railing at tech companies over their alleged suppression of right-wing views. This week, a Republican lawmaker decided to do something about that supposed bias.
Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri proposed legislation that would eliminate web companies' most important legal protections, unless the companies treat content "neutrally." Specifically, Hawley's bill would strip large online platforms of the protections of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, unless the companies prove to the Federal Trade Commission that they don't discriminate based on politics or viewpoint. The measure would apply to companies with more than 30 million monthly users, 300 million global users, or $500 million in annual revenue.
Section 230, rightly considered the most important law regarding the internet, immunizes tech platforms from liability for users' speech. The law protects Yelp from defamation lawsuits based on users' reviews; it protects Craigslist from negligence lawsuits based on products sold by users. Without Section 230, web companies like Facebook, Google, Craigslist, LinkedIn and Yelp would no longer be able to allow users to post anything that hadn't been vetted.
Hawley says his bill, named “Ending Support for Internet Censorship Act,” will address political bias by Big Tech.
“There’s a growing list of evidence that shows big tech companies making editorial decisions to censor viewpoints they disagree with,” Hawley stated when he unveiled the measure.
It's not clear what “evidence” Hawley is referring to. Certainly some high-profile conservatives have complained that their speech was suppressed online, but anecdotal accounts don't add up to proof of systematic viewpoint discrimination.
New York Law School professor Ari Waldman, who has studied the issue, told lawmakers last year that web companies don't appear to be suppressing speech based on political views.
"Lots of content gets filtered out, but no more so from the right than from the left," New York Law School professor Ari Waldman told Congress last year.
"When victims of racist, homophobic, and sexist tweets and comments post those comments to call out the aggressors, it is often the victims that are suspended or banned," he stated. "Activists associates with the Black Lives Matter movement have reported just as many if not more take downs of images discussing racism and police brutality than any of the anecdotal evidence of suspensions or take downs on the right."
In any event, no outside observers appear to think Hawley's proposal is a good idea, or that it will promote free speech. On the contrary, the bill is seen as undermining free speech by regulating companies' decisions about how to treat content.
“Like most Congressional bill names, the title is a complete misdirection,” writes Santa Clara University law professor Eric Goldman. “Of course private entities aren’t engaged in Internet 'censorship.' Perhaps a more accurate title for this bill would be 'Creating Internet Censorship Act.'”
“Hawley’s proposal would revive the Fairness Doctrine, an idea that Republicans have opposed since the Truman administration,” Berin Szóka, president of the libertarian group TechFreedom stated. “For the first time, Internet services would effectively need a license issued by the U.S. government to operate.”
The digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation adds that the bill would “make the internet less safe for free expression, not more.”
“It’s dangerous to give a government agency the impossible task of enforcing political neutrality on platforms -- and it violates the First Amendment,” the group stated. “The bill would disincentivize online platforms from taking measures to protect their users, including efforts to minimize harassment and hate speech--the very sort of community management efforts that Section 230 was intended to protect.”
Former FTC Commissioner Joshua Wright, a Republican, also weighed in against the proposal.
“No FTC Commissioner is expert in assessing the design or intent of algorithmic decisions over content,” he tweeted Wednesday.
Hawley's home state newspaper The Kansas City Star, piled on, calling the bill an assault on free speech.
“It’s clear Missouri’s senator wants to make regulation of big technology companies a top priority,” the paper wrote in an editorial. “Yes, Facebook, Google and Twitter may be too big, and government oversight of their business models, including anti-trust enforcement, may be needed. But arguing over the firms’ free speech rights, or holding them hostage, is a counterproductive distraction from that effort.”