Technology platforms such as Facebook Inc. and Google’s YouTube could face a flood of lawsuits unless they can demonstrate their treatment of users’ content is politically neutral, under a measure that U.S. Senator Josh Hawley’s office said he would offer Wednesday.
The proposal by the Missouri Republican reflects allegations by others in his party, including President Donald Trump, that the platforms are biased against conservative opinion. His bill would strip large tech companies of legal immunity for user-generated content unless the platforms can show their content-moderation practices have no political tilt.
“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 said in a news release.
The tech companies treasure the immunity exemption, part of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, because it saves them from reviewing every piece of content before it goes online and then shields them from lawsuits if content turns out to be problematic. The exemption also allows online companies to remove content that may be covered by the First Amendment’s free-speech protection but that may also promote extreme views or violence.
Facebook, Alphabet Inc.’s Google and Twitter Inc. have said charges of bias are unsupported. When conservatives have been kicked off platforms, the companies have said, it was often for violating rules against hate speech and harassment.
“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,” said Michael Beckerman, president of the Internet Association, which represents Google, Facebook and Twitter. “That shouldn’t be a tradeoff.”
Lawmakers in both parties have grown increasingly frustrated by the way social media spreads misinformation or hate-filled posts and videos. In a June 13 House Intelligence Committee hearing, for example, Democratic and Republican representatives discussed limiting the liability shield before the 2020 election, but there was no consensus over whether and how to do that.
Congress already moved in 2018 to curtail the immunity protection for online content involving sex trafficking.
“Everyone agrees a federal speech policy would be a terrible idea,” Senator Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican, said during a Monday conference on free speech at the Washington Post. He nonetheless floated changes to the exemption to deal with what he conceded were anecdotal charges of bias against conservative opinions.
“If they’re going to be partisan gatekeepers, there’s no reason that the big tech media companies should have a special immunity from liability” that no one else has, Cruz said.
The Hawley measure would apply to sites that have more than 30 million monthly active users in the U.S., 50 million monthly active users worldwide or $500 million in global annual revenue.
Under the bill, the companies every two years would have to convince the Federal Trade Commission “by clear and convincing evidence” that they do not “negatively affect a political party, political candidate, or political viewpoint” in their treatment of messages, shared news stories, videos and other content. The companies would also have to convince four of the five commissioners.
Hawley, first elected to the Senate last November, has quickly become one of the tech industry’s biggest antagonists on Capitol Hill. He has proposed bills that would stop websites from collecting unnecessary data and broaden a childrens’ online privacy law. He has also called for the FTC to impose “sweeping changes” on Facebook.
The bill, which Hawley’s office said has no cosponsors, faces an uphill battle in a gridlocked Congress that hasn’t yet unified on an approach to the issue.
–With assistance from Daniel Flatley.
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