Censorship Bill Would Limit Legal Protections For Online Platforms

Republican Senator Josh Hawley from Missouri proposed a new bill last week that seeks to correct alleged bias in how giant social media sites censor user content.

Titled “Ending Support for Internet Censorship Act,” Hawley’s bill would establish a process for auditing bias at big tech companies like Facebook, Google, and Twitter. Companies with more than 30 million U.S. users, 300 million global users, or $500 million in annual revenue would have to prove to the FTC that they do not censor content “in a manner that is biased against a political party, political candidate, or political viewpoint.” 

While some insist online platforms should be able to moderate their own content in any manner they choose, others like Hawley argue that equitable censorship is needed to protect users and the greater public from the effects of biased, falsified, threatening, or otherwise dangerous online content.

“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.”

Hawley’s bill would exempt large internet companies from the protections given under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996.

Because of Section 230, internet platforms are not legally responsible for content posted by their users, content that includes false, obscene, violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable content. In effect, the Communications Decency Act arguably protects free expression online while also allowing platforms to censor content for any reason.

Reactions to the proposed bill have been largely negative.

Conservative commentator David French, writing at National Review, says the bill “would inject the federal government directly into the private social-media business and grant it enormous power over social-media content.”

“It would enable public censorship in the name of limiting private control,” French wrote.

Writers at the Wall Street Journal, Washington Examiner, and Slate have also written skeptically about the bill. “Hawley’s bill foists these hazy yet sweeping rules on tech companies, prohibiting them from removing ‘political’ speech without clearly explaining what content qualifies as ‘political,’” Mark Stern wrote. “It then puts these companies at the mercy of four unelected political appointees at the FTC.” 

The chief executive officer of the Internet Association was also critical.

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

While content moderation may prove challenging, Hawley argues regulation is necessary to reign in an industry that has become so influential.

“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.”

Republican Senator Josh Hawley from Missouri proposed a new bill last week that seeks to correct alleged bias in how giant social media sites censor user content.

Titled “Ending Support for Internet Censorship Act,” Hawley’s bill would establish a process for auditing bias at big tech companies like Facebook, Google, and Twitter. Companies with more than 30 million U.S. users, 300 million global users, or $500 million in annual revenue would have to prove to the FTC that they do not censor content “in a manner that is biased against a political party, political candidate, or political viewpoint.” 

While some insist online platforms should be able to moderate their own content in any manner they choose, others like Hawley argue that equitable censorship is needed to protect users and the greater public from the effects of biased, falsified, threatening, or otherwise dangerous online content.

“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.”

Hawley’s bill would exempt large internet companies from the protections given under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996.

Because of Section 230, internet platforms are not legally responsible for content posted by their users, content that includes false, obscene, violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable content. In effect, the Communications Decency Act arguably protects free expression online while also allowing platforms to censor content for any reason.

Reactions to the proposed bill have been largely negative.

Conservative commentator David French, writing at National Review, says the bill “would inject the federal government directly into the private social-media business and grant it enormous power over social-media content.”

“It would enable public censorship in the name of limiting private control,” French wrote.

Writers at the Wall Street Journal, Washington Examiner, and Slate have also written skeptically about the bill. “Hawley’s bill foists these hazy yet sweeping rules on tech companies, prohibiting them from removing ‘political’ speech without clearly explaining what content qualifies as ‘political,’” Mark Stern wrote. “It then puts these companies at the mercy of four unelected political appointees at the FTC.” 

The chief executive officer of the Internet Association was also critical.

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

While content moderation may prove challenging, Hawley argues regulation is necessary to reign in an industry that has become so influential.

“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.”

Image by Pexels

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