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McMorris Rodgers unveils draft legislation to strip tech companies of ‘Section 230’ legal protections

UPDATED: Wed., July 28, 2021

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers addresses reporters on Election Night in November 2020.  (Dan Pelle/The Spokesman-Review)
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers addresses reporters on Election Night in November 2020. (Dan Pelle/The Spokesman-Review)

WASHINGTON – The top Republican on the House panel that oversees internet regulations unveiled a package of draft bills Wednesday that would strip social media companies and other tech giants of a key legal protection that shields them from liability for content on their platforms and how they police it.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane, led GOP members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee in the proposal to overhaul the legal shield provided by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a 1996 law that gives online companies broad authority to publish or remove content from their websites without facing lawsuits. Republicans contend companies like Facebook and Twitter censor right-wing views, and members of both parties have raised concerns about harmful content online.

“Big Tech has failed to promote the battle of ideas and free speech by censoring political viewpoints they disagree with,” McMorris Rodgers said in a statement. “They also don’t do enough to keep our children safe or address illegal content on their platforms. Big Tech has broken our trust that they can be good and responsible stewards of their platforms.”

Both parties have taken aim at Section 230 in recent years, but while Republicans say it gives tech companies too much authority to remove content from their platforms, Democrats say the law lets companies off the hook when they propagate false and even dangerous information.

While the employees of tech companies overwhelmingly support Democratic candidates, according to campaign donations compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, a study released by New York University in February found right-wing voices are in fact amplified by social media platforms and concluded, “the claim of anti-conservative animus is itself a form of disinformation: a falsehood with no reliable evidence to support it.”

With Republicans and Democrats pushing for reform in opposite directions, tech companies have so far faced little real risk that Congress could change the law that makes their business models possible. Repealing Section 230 altogether, as former President Donald Trump has repeatedly called for, would subject a company like Facebook to potential lawsuits over any post on its platform.

The Republicans’ draft legislation would remove “large companies” – defined as those that generate at least $3 billion in annual revenue and have at least 300 million active monthly users – from Section 230 protections, hold “major platforms” accountable for their content moderation decisions, and require that any liability protections “would only be related to speech not protected by the First Amendment.”

It would also demand such companies file regular disclosures detailing their content moderation policies to the Federal Trade Commission and ensure a user-friendly appeal process for any content removed from their platforms. While McMorris Rodgers and Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, are officially leading the effort, every GOP member of the Energy and Commerce Committee is involved in parts of the legislation, including a series of “carve outs” to address moderation of illegal content.

With Democrats holding a narrow majority in the House and controlling its committees, the Republicans’ “discussion draft” legislation has virtually no chance of becoming law. Instead, it serves as a statement of the GOP’s agenda on a once-obscure issue Trump elevated after companies including Facebook and Twitter labeled statements he made on their platforms as false and eventually barred him altogether. Republicans hope the issue can help them retake control of the House and Senate in next year’s midterm elections.

Orion Donovan-Smith's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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