Government & Politics

Hawley’s bill requires audits for Facebook, other sites to prove no political bias

Sen. Josh Hawley introduced sweeping legislation Wednesday that would eliminate legal protections for Facebook and other major social media sites unless they agree to federal audits to prove they aren’t politically biased.

The Missouri Republican’s bill would make major changes to the 1996 law that enables internet companies such as as YouTube and Twitter to host user-generated content without the legal liability that newspapers and broadcasters face for the journalism and other material they carry.

Hawley’s bill would eliminate that immunity from libel actions unless the companies agree to regular audits by the Federal Trade Commission. The audits would have to show with clear and convincing evidence that their content removal practices are politically neutral.

Even before its formal introduction, the bill generated a backlash from tech industry and free market groups.

The legislation comes as social media platforms have taken steps to reduce extremist content, which has triggered accusations of political bias. Last month, for example, Facebook removed conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, rightwing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos and Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.

Hawley has repeatedly called on tech companies to disclose their methodology for determining what users to remove. “There’s a growing list of evidence that shows big tech companies making editorial decisions to censor viewpoints they disagree with,” Hawley said in a statement.

“Even worse, the entire process is shrouded in secrecy because these companies refuse to make their protocols public. 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.”

Charges of an anti-conservative bias on the part of tech companies were the focus of Hawley’s appearance at the American Conservative Union’s CPAC conference earlier this year.

Hawley has crafted his legislation to apply only to sites that reach a user or revenue threshold, a move that is intended to alleviate concerns about the potential impact to small start-ups.

The measure would apply to sites that have either more than 30 million active monthly users in the U.S., more than 300 million active users worldwide or more than $500 million in annual global revenue— a threshold that would capture some of the most recognizable internet brands, such as Google and Facebook.

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which has been the guiding law of the internet since 1996, states no provider of an “interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

That protection allowed Facebook and other social media companies to grow into businesses worth billions by ensuring the companies would not be responsible for users’ behavior.

Hawley blasted Section 230 as “a sweetheart deal that no other industry enjoys: complete exemption from traditional publisher liability in exchange for providing a forum free of political censorship.”

But the law also gives these companies the power to restrict access to material considered “obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable, whether or not such material is constitutionally protected.”

Michael Beckerman, president and CEO of the Internet Association, a lobbying group that represents Google and other tech companies, emphasized that contrary to Hawley’s interpretation the current law “allows online companies to moderate and remove content that no reasonable person wants online—including content that could have a ‘political viewpoint.’”

Hawley’s bill would require large sites to receive certification from the FTC that they do not monitor content in a way that is politically biased in order to receive the protections of Section 230. Critics say this will force social media sites to allow hate speech to run rampant.

“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. That shouldn’t be a tradeoff,” Beckerman said.

Carl Szabo, general counsel for NetChoice, another tech industry group, said the bill would turn popular sites into hubs for extremism.

“Sen. Hawley’s bill creates an internet where content from the KKK would display alongside our family photos and cat videos,” Szabo said.

Hawley’s push to have the Federal Trade Commission certify whether sites are politically neutral has run afoul of Americans for Prosperity, the main arm of Wichita’s Koch family political network.

“Senator Hawley’s misguided legislation sets 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,” said AFP policy analyst Bill Easley.

This is not the first time that AFP has engaged in the battle over technology. The group launched ads in April aimed at dissuading Senate Judiciary members, including Hawley, from supporting anti-trust efforts against tech companies.

Hawley had attended a Koch-sponsored policy seminar early in his Senate campaign and AFP spent roughly $4 million on ads targeting then-Sen. Claire McCaskill in her showdown with Hawley. The condemnation of Hawley’s bill comes as AFP is signaling a greater openness to working with Democrats in the face of some policy disagreements with Republicans.

“This bill would punish success in the next generation of innovative startups and prevent them from achieving their full potential. Lawmakers should reject this legislation,” Easley said.

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Bryan Lowry covers Kansas and Missouri politics as Washington correspondent for The Kansas City Star. He previously served as Kansas statehouse correspondent for The Wichita Eagle and as The Star’s lead political reporter. Lowry contributed to The Star’s investigation into government secrecy that was a finalist for The Pulitzer Prize.
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