Senator Josh Hawley (R., Mo.) on Wednesday called to revoke liability protections for social media companies in a move that could have far-reaching ramifications for the regulation of speech on the internet.
“It’s pretty simple: if Twitter and Google and the rest are going to editorialize and censor and act like traditional publishers, they should be treated like traditional publishers and stop receiving the special carve out from the federal government in Section 230,” Hawley wrote on Twitter.
Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which was passed in 1996, exempts internet companies from liability for publication of inaccurate information, if that information was uploaded by a third party. A company that hosts blogs, for example, may be protected from liability lawsuits if the author of a blog publishes inaccurate information, so long as the post does not run afoul of any existing criminal laws.
The first major challenge to Section 230 was in Zeran v. AOL in 1997, in which the 4th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that AOL (America Online) was not liable for a misleading advertisement.
“Section 230… plainly immunizes computer service providers like AOL from liability for information that originates with third parties,” Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson wrote in his opinion.
In his statement on Section 230, Hawley indicated that he backed President Trump in a feud with Twitter. After Trump wrote a series of tweets criticizing mail-order voting as inherently susceptible to fraud, Twitter placed a fact-check label on the tweets. The President on Wednesday hit back again on Twitter, threatening to regulate or even shut down social media companies. In Hawley’s view, Twitter’s decision to add fact check tag to Trump’s tweet constitutes an editorial decision and thereby forfeits the company’s status as a neutral platform under Section 230.
“Republicans feel that Social Media Platforms totally silence conservatives voices,” Trump wrote. “We will strongly regulate, or close them down, before we can ever allow this to happen.”