A group of Republican senators is proposing a bill that would let consumers sue social media companies for “selectively censoring political speech.”
The bill from Senator Josh Hawley (R-Missouri) is designed to force social media companies to pay $5,000 in damages for each violation, if a court rules in the plaintiff’s favor.
Hawley’s goal is to “combat Big Tech censorship.” He and other Republicans, including President Trump, have accused social media companies of unfairly enforcing their rules to take down and hide posts from conservative users. (The tech companies deny this.)
“For too long, Big Tech companies like Twitter, Google, and Facebook have used their power to silence political speech from conservatives without any recourse for users,” Halwey claimed on Wednesday when unveiling the bill. Senators Marco Rubio (R-Florida), Mike Braun (R-Indiana), and Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) are co-sponsors of the bill.
The legislation would amend Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Currently, the law shields internet companies from getting sued in the event a user posts illegal or objectionable content; the provider simply has to make a “good faith” effort to pull the content down.
Hawley’s bill seeks to change the whole dynamic by offering legal immunity only if the internet company upholds the good faith principle and fairly enforces its rules. Internet companies acting in bad faith, on the other hand, can get sued.
According to the legislation, “intentionally selective enforcement” of a site’s terms of service represents a violation. Using a computer algorithm to unfairly restrict social media content is another. Companies caught intentionally failing “to honor a public or private promise” also risk losing the legal immunity.
The bill arrives as the White House launches an all-out effort to amend Section 230 after Twitter fact-checked two tweets from President Trump. According to The Wall Street Journal, the Justice Department is also crafting a legislative plan to roll back Section 230 protections.
Hawley’s bill would apply to only the big internet platforms with over 30 million users in the US or 300 million users worldwide. However, the legislation in its current form may have a loophole. It essentially calls on social media providers to follow their terms of services, meaning the companies could simply rewrite their rules to offer greater latitude in taking down objectionable content.