A provision tucked away in a law known as the Communications Decency Act has become a battleground for free speech and the accountability of technology companies.
Supporters of Section 230 call it essential for the continued development of the internet. They insist that any lessening of liability protections will drive away angel investors for tech innovations.
Lawmakers in Washington, including Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, counter that technology companies like Google, Twitter and Facebook have gotten special treatment by the federal law, a privilege they hope to temper.
Hawley and fellow U.S. senators introduced legislation this week that allows Americans to sue the companies if they act in bad faith while using Section 230 immunity.
“I hope that it gives people, everyday individuals, power to stand up if they get censored or they get treated unfairly,” Hawley said. “It’s really a simple concept that we have everywhere else in America, and that is if somebody violates your rights, you can take them to court.”
The bill’s title, the Limiting Section 230 Immunity to Good Samaritans Act, provides a hint at its intention. It would contractually bind a company using Section 230 protections, through its terms of service, to “a duty of good faith.” A breach of this would bring a fine of $5,000.
“Recent actions by Big Tech call into question the legal immunities that social media companies enjoy under Section 230 and whether these firms live up to their obligations,” Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican and bill co-sponsor, said.
“It is time to take a fresh look at the statute and clarify the vague standard of ‘good faith’ for which technology companies receive legal protections.”
One recent action, according to Hawley, came just this week. Reports circulated that Google had notified two conservative websites, The Federalist and ZeroHedge, that they had been cut off from Google Ads revenue because of violations of policies regarding hate speech.
In an interview with News-Press NOW, Hawley said the web platforms provide content but get different treatment than newspapers and television stations.
“Even if Twitter, for instance, editorializes about the president of the United States, which they have been doing, even if they modify the content, they’re still not liable, and they’re never liable for decisions they make to take down content,” the Missourian said.
“My bill would change that. It would say if these tech companies don’t follow their own terms of service fairly, then they can be sued.”
Matt Schruers, president of the Computer & Communications Industry Association, voiced his objections to a Department of Justice proposal announced Wednesday to alter Section 230.
“This is a shockingly ill-conceived proposal,” he said.
“Amid a pandemic, pervasive racial injustice, in an election season, the Justice Department proposes to remove from this critical statute the language that provides legal certainty for the removal of everything from coronavirus misinformation to racism to disinformation by foreign intelligence operatives. Why would the Justice Department want to limit companies’ ability to fight these threats?”