Josh Hawley
© Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images
U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) speaks during a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee March 12, 2019 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.
Sen. Josh Hawley has announced legislation that would remove tech titans' protection from liability for third-party content on their platforms.

The Missouri senator's bill specifically targets Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

The Act, which became law in 1996, provides key legal protection to big tech. Section 230 states that "no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider."

Hawley, however, says that the Communications Decency Act was passed when the Internet was still in its infancy, whereas big tech firms are now among the world's most powerful companies. His legislation, the Ending Support for Internet Censorship Act, would remove the protection that big tech receives under Section 230 unless the firms submit to an external audit that proves their algorithms and content moderation are politically neutral.

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

Big tech firms such as Facebook and Google have repeatedly been accused of political bias, allegations that the companies deny.

"There's a growing list of evidence that shows big tech companies making editorial decisions to censor viewpoints they disagree with," Hawley added. "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."

The Republican senator's legislation does not apply to small and medium-sized tech firms.

Under Hawley's bill, big tech firms would have to provide evidence to the FTC proving that their algorithms and content-removal practices are neutral. Tech titans would also be responsible for the costs of performing audits, and would also have to re-apply for immunity every two years.

Other politicians have also eyed Section 230. Earlier this year, for example, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif, hinted that Silicon Valley could lose the protection it receives under the current legislation.

Supporters of Section 230, however, says that it is a cornerstone of the Internet that must be protected. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, for example, describes Section 230 as "one of the most valuable tools for protecting freedom of expression and innovation on the Internet."

"Though there are important exceptions for certain criminal and intellectual property-based claims, CDA 230 creates a broad protection that has allowed innovation and free speech online to flourish," the Electronic Frontier Foundation adds, on its website. "This legal and policy framework has allowed for YouTube and Vimeo users to upload their own videos, Amazon and Yelp to offer countless user reviews, craigslist to host classified ads, and Facebook and Twitter to offer social networking to hundreds of millions of Internet users."

The Electronic Frontier Foundation is a nonprofit organization that describes its role as defending civil liberties in the digital world.

Critics of Hawley's bill say that it undermines free speech. "Senator Hawley's misguided legislation sets the table for stricter government control over free expression online," said Americans for Prosperity Policy Analyst Billy Easley, in a statement. "Eroding the crucial protections that exist under Section 230 creates a scenario where government has the ability to police your speech and determine what you can or cannot say online."

The legislation would also cement big tech's market dominance, according to Easley. "This bill would punish success in the next generation of innovative startups and prevent them from achieving their full potential," he said, urging lawmakers to reject the legislation.

Americans for Prosperity is a political advocacy group that promotes free-market policies and limited government.

Internet industry association NetChoice also condemned the legislation, warning that it would embolden extreme political groups. "This bill prevents social media websites from removing dangerous and hateful content, since that could make them liable for lawsuits over any user's posting" said Carl Szabo, General Counsel at NetChoice, in a statement. "Sen. Hawley's bill creates an internet where content from the KKK would display alongside our family photos and cat videos."