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U.S. Senator Josh Hawley, known for his views on holding Big Tech to account, has announced that he is introducing legislation that threatens the business models of leading technology companies including Facebook, Google and Twitter. The proposal would remove the immunity in place under Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act. This protects the companies from liability for the content posted by users, essentially a “post-office defense.” To escape the loss of protection, companies will need to “submit to biannual audits to prove their algorithms and content-removal practices are politically neutral.”
Hawley is not the first politician to attack Section 230. Social media has come in for increasing criticism in the last year as the prevalence of terrorist content and hate speech has been exposed by the media. Matters came to a head with the terrorist attack in Christchurch, New Zealand, which was live streamed on Facebook, leading to a series of admissions by leading social media platforms as to the challenges involved in policing content. Leading politicians including Ted Cruz, Nancy Pelosi and Elizabeth Warren have hammered the companies for the content on their sites and the seeming lack of genuine will to solve the problem.
“With Section 230,” Hawley said in a statement, “tech companies get a sweetheart deal that no other industry enjoys – complete exemption from traditional publisher liability in exchange for providing a forum free of political censorship. Unfortunately, and unsurprisingly, big tech has failed to hold up its end of the bargain.”
The proposed legislation would see Big Tech “having to prove to the FTC by clear and convincing evidence that their algorithms and content-removal practices are politically neutral,” while “preserving existing immunity for small and medium-sized companies.” The bill would only apply to companies “with more than 30 million active monthly users in the U.S., more than 300 million active monthly users worldwide, or who have more than $500 million in global annual revenue.” Clearly, that would trap all the household names in its net.
The proposed bill promises to trigger a highly emotive debate. One group campaigning against the legislation is Americans for Prosperity, backed by the Koch brothers, which said ahead of Hawley’s announcement that “eroding the crucial protections that exist under Section 230 creates a scenario where the government has the ability to police your speech and determine what you can or cannot say online. Senator Hawley has argued that some tech platforms have become too powerful, but legislation like this would only cement the market dominance of today’s largest firms.”
Hawley has painted himself as one of the leading U.S. advocates for using the law to control Big Tech. In addition to content issues, he has also raised the specter of the U.S. industry’s relationship with China. Earlier this year he publicly lambasted Google for its work with China’s technology industry that indirectly benefited the country’s military, while turning down development contracts with the U.S. Department of Defense. This week he questioned Google’s links to China, asking whether a Google Translate error that favored the authorities instead of the protestors during the Hong Kong demonstrations was deliberate.
“There’s a growing list of evidence that shows big tech companies making editorial decisions to censor viewpoints they disagree with,” Hawley said. “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.”
Michael Novakhov – SharedNewsLinks℠