One week ago today, freshman senator Josh Hawley (R., Mo.) introduced a bill requiring large social-media companies to prove to the Federal Trade Commission that their platforms are not politically biased. Failure to satisfy the FTC in this regard would result in companies such as Facebook and Twitter losing immunity from liability for defamatory content posted by their users, meaning they could be sued out of existence.
Hawley’s proposal drew sharp criticism from several voices on the right, including our own David French, who wrote that the bill is both unconstitutional and unwise. On Capitol Hill, there hasn’t been a groundswell of support for Hawley’s legislation, which currently has zero cosponsors. But neither has there been much pushback from Hawley’s Republican colleagues.
Representative Justin Amash (R., Mich.), a frequent thorn in his caucus’s side, tweeted that the bill is “a sweetheart deal for Big Government. It empowers the one entity that should have no say over our speech to regulate and influence what we say online.” But only one of more than a dozen Republican senators contacted by National Review expressed any criticism of Hawley’s legislation: Nebraska’s Ben Sasse, who “is not a co-sponsor of this government-control approach and has concerns that this could open the door to the left for a new government Fairness Doctrine,” his spokesman, James Wegmann, tells National Review.
“My gut reaction is it’s a pretty blunt instrument. But I’m going to take a look at it,” says John Kennedy of Louisiana.
“I haven’t read the details of the bill, but it’s a topic you’re going to continue to hear a lot about as these platforms perform editorial functions,” says Marco Rubio of Florida. “The question is: Should they be treated as newspapers or just platforms?”
Mike Braun of Indiana is more interested in seeing Big Tech companies receive antitrust scrutiny and says the question of government-mandated political neutrality is “trickier.” Ron Johnson of Wisconsin calls it a “complex” issue.
“I’m not sure what the answer is when it comes to the large social-media companies,” Susan Collins of Maine says when asked about Hawley’s bill, before turning her attention to the issue of social media’s use by foreign actors seeking to interfere in U.S. elections.
Several other Republican senators and their spokesmen decline to weigh in one way or the other. “Not right now,” Rand Paul of Kentucky says when asked for comment. “I haven’t read it,” says Rick Scott of Florida. “I haven’t seen it,” says Cory Gardner of Colorado. “I haven’t had a chance to look at it,” says Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania.
Arkansas senator Tom Cotton is still reviewing the legislation, according to his spokesman. Utah senator Mike Lee’s spokesman declined to comment. Texas senator Ted Cruz’s office did not respond to emails and voicemails seeking comment. Lee and Cruz are both members of the Senate Judiciary Committee and former Supreme Court clerks.
Among Democrats in the Senate, Ron Wyden of Oregon has emerged as the sharpest critic of Hawley’s bill. Hawley’s effort “to require government oversight of online speech will turn the federal government into Speech Police, flagrantly violating the First Amendment. This bill would force every platform to become 4chan or 8chan rather than maintain some basic level of decency,” Wyden tweeted. He elaborated on his criticism of the legislation in an interview Tuesday with Reason.
Some Democrats have shown themselves open to using the same threat as Hawley — amending Section 230 — to influence large tech platforms in different ways. House speaker Nancy Pelosi, for example, recently raised the possibility of doing so after social-media companies refused to take down a doctored video of her slurring her words. And one Senate Democrat tells National Review that he’s willing to hear Hawley out.
“I’ve not come to a conclusion on what the approach ought to be on Section 230,” says Democratic senator Mark Warner of Virginia, who teamed up with the Missouri Republican earlier this week to require tech companies to disclose to users how much their data is worth. “I think there should be a debate.”