Last month, Sen. Josh Hawley, a Republican from Missouri, issued a widely derided proposal to strip web companies of key legal protections, unless the companies treat content “neutrally.”
Hawley's proposed bill would deprive large online platforms of the protections of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, unless the companies prove they don't discriminate based on politics or viewpoint. Section 230, considered the most important law regarding the internet, immunizes tech platforms from liability for users' speech.
Section 230 is the reason why Yelp isn't liable for reviews that allegedly defame business owners, and the reason why Craigslist doesn't face liability for items sold by users.
The proposal was quickly attacked by people on all sides of the political spectrum, with critics pointing out that Hawley's bill would actually diminish free speech rights by dictating content standards to tech companies.
On Thursday, a broad coalition of academics and organizations -- including the American Legislative Exchange Council (backed by the Koch brothers), the digital rights group Center for Democracy & Technology and New America's Open Technology Institute -- officially urged policymakers to reject Hawley's proposal.
"Section 230 does not, and should not, require 'neutrality'," those groups write in a statement aimed at influencing lawmakers' views on possible revisions to Section 230.
"Publishing third-party content online never can be 'neutral'," the letter continues. "Indeed, every publication decision will necessarily prioritize some content at the expense of other content. Even an 'objective' approach, such as presenting content in reverse chronological order, isn’t neutral because it prioritizes recency over other values.”
The statement comes the same day that President Trump met with right-wing activists to discuss alleged bias by tech companies. Trump tweeted Thursday morning that a focus of the meeting would be “the tremendous dishonesty, bias, discrimination and suppression practiced by certain companies.”
Many conservative personalities have accused tech platforms of suppressing right-wing views, despite the utter lack of evidence that Silicon Valley companies systematically censor conservative voices. On the contrary, web companies currently take down posts made by liberals as well as conservatives, according to New York Law School professor Ari Waldman.
"Lots of content gets filtered out, but no more so from the right than from the left," Waldman told Congress last year.
For his part, Hawley repeated his questionable accusations against tech companies on Thursday at the White House.
“The media says -- the establishment media, the fake media -- they say, oh, there's no censorship in social media. That's all made up. That's all fake,” he told the audience. “You and I know the truth is that the social media giants would love to shut us down, they would love to shut us up.”