Senate Judiciary Chair Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), meanwhile, is holding a markup of new legislation on Thursday aimed at addressing allegations of an anti-conservative bias on social media. It’s the fastest any bill to revamp the legal shield has moved from introduction to a markup on Capitol Hill in recent memory.
Both committees are targeting liability protections that have been credited with fueling Silicon Valley’s success. The provision — enshrined in a 1996 law known as Section 230 — has allowed online businesses to grow without fear of lawsuits over user posts or their decisions to remove or otherwise moderate users’ content.
Both lawmakers have reason to want to get in the White House’s good graces. Graham, a prominent Trump ally, is facing the fight of his political life to hold onto his South Carolina seat against Democratic challenger Jaime Harrison. And Wicker will want to maintain a firm hold on his gavel, which gives him jurisdiction over most legislation targeting Section 230.
The congressional actions mark a sudden and dramatic escalation of efforts by Senate Republicans to revamp the legal shield — particularly with a Congress readying for elections and embroiled in negotiations over Covid relief. But Republicans say Section 230 has allowed social media platforms to discriminate against conservative viewpoints with impunity. Tech companies deny any such bias, and the administration itself has noted there’s limited academic data to back up the concerns.
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), a top Trump ally on tech and longtime critic of Section 230, called the recent surge of activity by his colleagues “a sea change.” President Donald Trump, he said, has been a driving force in rallying them.
“There’s hardly a conversation I have with the president where this doesn’t come up, where Section 230 does not come up, usually raised by him,” Hawley said in an interview. “It is much on his mind and I think his strong stance on this issue has had a big effect in opening the eyes of some of my Republican colleagues to realize this is a major issue.”
Trump has taken his own steps to weaken Silicon Valley’s standing after Twitter began adding fact-check and warning labels to some of his tweets.
The president issued an executive order in May asking his independent agencies to crack down on the liability protections, and has taken an active role in seeking results. He has pulled in agency heads for discussions over how to implement the executive order and he nominated to the Federal Communications Commission a Commerce Department staffer who help craft an administration petition to narrow Section 230 protections.
The onslaught against the liability shield comes ahead of a November election where tech companies are likely to face high-stakes decisions over how to handle posts by Trump seeking to undermine the results of the tally. Facebook, Google and Twitter have all outlined plans to limit political candidates’ ability to declare premature victory or cast doubt on the voting process ahead of Nov. 3.
It’s not Thursday’s sessions alone. Republicans are looking to drum up support for other bills targeting Section 230 on bias. And Hawley last week took to the Senate floor to unsuccessfully request unanimous passage of his own bill targeting Section 230. That bill would give users more leeway to sue online businesses if they feel their posts have been discriminated against.
Although the White House didn’t comment on whether the administration requested the GOP lawmakers’ efforts, it lauded their actions.
“We support congressional efforts to shed light on Section 230 liability issues and possible abuses by the tech industry,” White House spokesperson Judd Deere said. “It’s unfortunate Democrats are attempting to block these efforts.”
The president has also privately expressed frustration that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has not taken up any bills targeting Section 230 over the bias charges, said one of the people who spoke anonymously. A McConnell spokesperson didn’t respond to a request for comment. Trump last month tweeted that McConnell “must fight back and repeal Section 230, immediately,” adding “Stop biased Big Tech before they stop you!”
Trump’s allies on Capitol Hill confirm a free-flowing dialogue with the administration on the matter. “We have talked to the White House, we have talked to the DOJ,” Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) said in an interview about a separate bill targeting the liability shield that she introduced with Wicker and Graham. She did not elaborate on the conversations.
NetChoice vice president Carl Szabo, whose tech trade group represents industry giants including Facebook, Google and Amazon, called the deluge of hearings, bills and speeches “two to three weeks of hell for tech.”
“It’s likely to continue through the election, and a lot of it is to keep tech on its back feet when it comes to content moderation,” Szabo said.
The offensive is meeting stiff resistance from congressional Democrats, who reject the moves as politically-driven attempts to intimidate social media companies into dialing back their policing of misleading and incendiary posts by the president and his allies.
“It’s a really important time, leading into this election,” Karen Kornbluh, who directs the digital innovation and democracy initiative at the German Marshall Fund and served in the Obama and Clinton administrations, said in an interview. “Conspiracy theories are spreading.”
Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington, the top Democrat on Wicker’s panel, said she resisted his initial subpoena request over fears that such a move would chill the companies’ efforts to tackle “lies, harassment and intimidation” ahead of the election.
“I am not interested in using our subpoena power to try to play or game the refs days before an election, which is clearly what Republicans are doing,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said this week. “The timing shows that these subpoenas are clearly calculated to chill efforts to get misinformation or falsehoods from abroad or domestic groups [removed].”
Commerce Democrats could boycott the subpoena vote in protest, an action Blumenthal declined to rule out. He also said the move could “set back” bipartisan progress on Capitol Hill to reform Section 230. Blumenthal and Graham for nearly a year have negotiated a separate bill targeting Section 230 and sexually exploitative material online.
Graham spokesperson Taylor Reidy said the senator “has discussed this issue [of Section 230 reform] for quite some time,” long prior to Thursday’s markup.
Democrats have launched their own pressure campaigns over their concerns about social media ahead of the election, but it’s taken a more limited form, such as through letters to top companies. The campaign for Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has expressed anxiety about Trump’s claims and an explosion of misinformation going unchecked in the critical days as voters cast their ballots. His campaign manager pledged to Facebook in letter to CEO Mark Zuckerberg this week that they would be “calling out those failures” in the coming days.
A trio of congressional Democrats in a separate missive last week accused Facebook of “failing to protect consumers from misinformation by inconsistently enforcing its own policies for its own financial and political benefit.”
The Democrats argue Republicans have taken their own campaign a step too far. “These are not what our oversight powers are supposed to be used to do,” Blumenthal said.