When Missouri Republican Sen. Josh Hawley proposed punishing Silicon Valley for its censorship of conservatives, many on the right hated his plan.
Hawley’s bill centers on changing a small section of law that has governed the way individual Americans and corporations have thought about the internet for decades: Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996. Specifically, Section 230 mandates that tech companies not be held responsible for third-party content and allows those companies to moderate that third-party content as they see fit, without fear of retaliatory lawsuits.
This means Facebook cannot be sued for the content its users post, and the Daily Caller cannot be held liable for deleting comments from its readers. Hawley argues tech companies have abused this power, using it to carve out users who don’t align with companies’ political agendas.
Conservative media figures have long pointed to a legal distinction between a “publisher” and a “platform” in the tech world. In this dichotomy, publishers can be sued for the content they publish because it represents the views of the company, but platforms cannot be sued for the content on their sites because they aren’t responsible for the views of their users. Once a company like Facebook or YouTube starts to moderate their site with an obvious political slant, the argument goes, they have become a publisher and should lose their immunity.
This is a misrepresentation of Section 230, however, which makes no distinctions between platforms and publishers and only grants a blanket authority for tech companies to delete third-party content and ban users. In fact, tech companies can only be sued for content they produced.
“No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be held liable on account of — (A) any action voluntarily taken in good faith to restrict access to or availability of material that the provider or user considers to be obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable, whether or not such material is constitutionally protected,” the law reads.
Hawley’s Ending Support for Internet Censorship Act avoids this argument entirely by fundamentally changing Section 230. In doing so, he purports to offer conservatives the relief from online censorship they have long sought. (RELATED: Inside Google’s Microaggressions Newsletter: Pronoun Problems, Soy Police, And A Deaf Person Told To Watch Her ‘Tone’)
“With Section 230, 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,” Hawley wrote in a statement announcing his bill. “Unfortunately, and unsurprisingly, big tech has failed to hold up its end of the bargain.”
Hawley’s legislation would require all tech companies with 30 million active users in the U.S. — or 300 million users globally — to periodically reapply for section 230 protections by proving they have been “politically neutral” in how they moderate their users’ content. Many on the right see Hawley’s aggressive step as long overdue.
“Social media companies that have routinely deplatformed conservatives and censored conservative speech should no longer enjoy the protections granted to politically neutral platforms,” Brent Bozell, president of the Media Research Center, said in a statement. “These tech companies claim they have no ideological bias — it is time they prove it.”
Not everyone on the right is convinced this law would benefit them in the long term, however. Commentators such as David French at National Review argue the bill would give the government far too much power over the internet.
“Hawley’s ‘Ending Support for Internet Censorship Act’ would empower internet censorship, all from the government, according to vague definitions and standards,” French wrote. “What could go wrong?”
Stand Together Vice President Jesse Blumenthal expanded on French’s argument Tuesday at the Don’t Shoot The Message Board (DSMB) conference in Washington, D.C., an event aimed at defending Section 230.
“Picture the candidate you least want to become president in 2020,” Blumenthal told the audience. “Now imagine that candidate winning the presidency and appointing the officials who will be responsible for enforcing what ‘neutrality’ is on the internet.”
In a world where Elizabeth Warren is President, they argue, the new government bureaucracy Hawley’s bill calls for would endanger conservatives more than Section 230 ever could.
The rebuttal from Hawley’s camp is frantic, insisting that the needs of the present outweigh fears of the future.
“As French channels Neville Chamberlain, the fact is that unless the tech companies are forcefully confronted, now, in the immediate, our self-governing republic will be over in less than a generation and we will be ruled by a tech oligarchy,” Ned Ryun wrote in American Greatness.
While both sides have enjoyed a very public debate, President Donald Trump’s administration has been silent with regard to Section 230 and Hawley’s bill, a silence the White House may be keen to preserve.
Internet Policy Specialist Rachel Wolbers, a low-level member of the Trump administration at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), was scheduled to speak at the DSMB conference alongside Blumenthal. While promotional materials featured her name prominently before the conference, she was nowhere to be found on the day of the event. Her name was taken off a digital speakers list at the event and administrators told the Daily Caller that she hadn’t given a specific reason for her absence.