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New bill would make Facebook, Twitter liable for political bias

Big tech companies would have to subject themselves to an external audit to prove they're neutral.

Senator Josh Hawley

Sen. Josh Hawley introduced legislation that would affect big tech companies. 

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A new piece of legislation aims to put pressure on tech companies to show that they're politically neutral. At risk is the tech companies' immunity over content published on their platforms.

Sen. Josh Hawley, a Republican from Missouri, introduced on Wednesday the Ending Support for Internet Censorship Act, which would remove tech companies' automatic immunity, provided in Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996. This section protects online platforms such as Facebook and Twitter from liability for content posted by their users. To receive immunity under the new act, tech companies would have to subject themselves to an external audit proving to the Federal Trade Commission that their practices are politically neutral.

This act would only affect larger tech companies, which it defines as having more than 30 million active monthly users in the US, more than 300 million active monthly users worldwide, and more than $500 million in global annual revenue. Those that don't meet the criteria would still receive automatic immunity.

"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 said in a press release. "Unfortunately, and unsurprisingly, big tech has failed to hold up its end of the bargain.

Facebook and Twitter declined to comment. 

Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, introduced the original Communications Decency Act of 1996 in the House of Representative when he was a Congressman at the time. He tweeted Wednesday that Sen. Hawley's legislation as a violation of the First Amendment and would make the government the "speech police." He also says the Senator from Missouri's legislation didn't grasp Section 230 of the act.

The Internet Association -- a trade association representing Facebook, Twitter, Google and other tech companies on matters of public policy -- says the companies it represents share the same goal as Hawley but take issue with his legislation. 

"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," Michael Beckerman, Internet Association president and CEO, said in a statement Wednesday. "That shouldn't be a tradeoff."

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Last July, representatives from Google, Facebook and Twitter testified in a congressional hearing that their respective companies made mistakes on what content gets published, but that they aren't censoring with a political bias. 

President Donald Trump in March accused social media sites of being biased against conservatives. Then in May, the White House launched a website where people can report whether they thought their social media accounts were banned due to political bias. 

Originally published June 19 at 8:14 a.m. PT.
Update 10:45 a.m. PT: Adds comment from Internet Association and background info. 1:16 p.m. PT: Adds Sen. Wyden tweet.