Senate wants to pass a bill and take away free speech from various social media platforms, including Facebook
Image: Quentin Sokolow / The Burn-In

Earlier this week, Senator Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) introduced a new proposal that would fundamentally change how popular social media platforms function. The senator introduced legislation that would amend Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996. The law protects social media companies like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube from being held liable for the content of their users’ posts.

Hawley wants to remove that liability protection from the nation’s largest social networks. However, the proposal also offers firms continued immunity provided they prove their platforms are “politically neutral.”

Ending Support for Internet Censorship Act

The lawmaker’s proposal wouldn’t nullify Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 outright. Instead, Hawley wants to amend it to exclude social networks that have more than 30 million active users in the U.S., 300 million users worldwide, and those that generate more than $500 million in revenue annually. As such, the legislator’s Ending Support for Internet Censorship Act would directly impact Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter.

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If Hawley’s bill passes, America’s biggest social networks would theoretically need to screen all user content before publishing it. Failing to do so would leave the companies liable for distributing hate speech and violating copyright law. However, given that those services are struggling to provide adequate content moderation now, it’s difficult to imagine how they could handle Hawley’s proposed regulations.

But Hawley’s bill does offer American social media giants an exemption from its restrictions. Corporations that agreed to be audited by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) every two years would retain their liability protection. Specifically, the proposal would require firms like Facebook to prove that they aren’t censoring users based on the political content of their output.

The Congressman’s implied assertion that social networks harbor old biases against conservative political viewpoints is a common accusation among right-wing politicians. Indeed, President Trump unveiled a digital tool allowing the public to report instances of social media censorship last month.

Reactions to the Proposal

Media outlets and Big Tech lobbyists received the Senator’s proposal negatively. For instance, the conservative publication National Review called the bill a threat to the First Amendment. Similarly, leftist publication ThinkProgress branded the proposed legislation as “unconstitutional.”

The Internet Association, a lobbyist group representing internet companies like Facebook and Google, also reacted negatively to Hawley’s bill. The firm argued the proposal would force social networks to disseminate “reprehensible speech” while undercutting their ability to clamp down on illegal content.

It’s worth noting that Hawley isn’t the only lawmaker who supports revising The Communications Decency Act. In April, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said social media companies don’t respect the privileged status Section 230 gives them. Additionally, Senator Mark Warner (D-Va.) said the rise of deep fake technology necessitates renewed debate regarding the law’s safe harbor provisions.

Regardless of how Congress comes down on the proposal, Sen. Hawley will likely continue introducing legislation to reform the tech sector. Last month, the lawmaker introduced a bill proposing a ban on loot boxes in games marketed to children. Furthermore, in April, Hawley publicly urged Google to explain its business interests in China to the American public.

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