Hawley's Bill to Let People Sue Big Tech Platforms Blocked in Senate

Hawley's Bill to Let People Sue Big Tech Platforms Blocked in Senate
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) listens during a hearing in Washington, Sept. 23, 2020. (Greg Nash/Pool/Getty Images)
Zachary Stieber

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) on Thursday blocked a bill that would have let Americans sue large technology companies for enforcing terms unfairly or unequally.

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) introduced the legislation and tried to get it passed with unanimous consent, which avoids a vote but allows any single senator to stymie its passage.

"There are a group of people who seem intent on influencing the people's choice, on manipulating it, on shaping it according to their own preferences. And I'm not talking about China or Russia or Iran," Hawley said on the Senate floor in Washington.

"I'm talking about a group of corporations, the most powerful corporations in the history of this nation, the most powerful corporations in the history of the world. I'm talking about big tech."

The senator argued that Facebook, Twitter, Google, and other platforms are heavily relied upon by Americans and that the companies running the platforms are increasingly ramping up censorship against both President Donald Trump and his supporters.

"For months, the tech platforms have been engaging in escalating acts of censorship, political censorship, aimed at conservatives. They censored the president of the united states. They have banned pro-life groups from their sites. They have tried to silence independent conservative journalists like the Federalist. ... Joe Biden isn't censored. Pro-choice groups aren't discriminated against. ... No, big tech targets conservatives for censorship for a simple reason. They don't like conservatives. They don't agree with conservatives. They don't want to see conservatives get elected," he charged.

Hawley's bill would amend Section 230 immunity, which currently protects platforms against lawsuits.

Wyden objected, blocking its passage.

The Democrat, who co-wrote Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, said the intent was to protect "the little guy, the person who didn't have power, the person who didn't have clout."

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) speaks during a hearing in Washington, June 30, 2020. (Susan Walsh/Pool/Getty Images)
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) speaks during a hearing in Washington, June 30, 2020. (Susan Walsh/Pool/Getty Images)

"This law is hugely important to movements like Me Too and Black Lives Matter, because it gives Americans the opportunity to see the messages that they want to get out. We've all seen the videos. Frankly, the establishment media I don't think would have even run a lot of it because they would be sued. So the original interest in this was making sure that the little guy had a chance to be heard. That's the interest today. That's what the senator from Missouri wants to throw in the trash can," he argued.

Wyden urged Hawley to support a different piece of legislation, a bill he's offered called the Mind Your Own Business Act that would make tech executives personally liable if they repeatedly lie.

Hawley responded by saying Wyden described "a world that doesn't exist."

"He says section 230 protects the little guy. Section 230 protects the most powerful corporations in the history of the world. Google and Facebook aren't the little guy. Instagram and Twitter aren't the little guy. You know who is left vulnerable by those megacorporations? The people who don't have a voice, the people who when they get de-platformed don't have an option," he said.

"If you're silenced by Google, Facebook, or Twitter, what is your option? None, nothing. You can't be heard. You can't go to court. You can't do anything."

Google, Twitter, and Facebook didn't immediately respond to requests for comment.

Later Thursday, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), the ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee, blocked subpoenas that Chairman Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) planned to issue Friday to the chief executives of Facebook, Twitter, and Alphabet, Google's parent company.

"I am happy to work with my colleagues to hold further substantive, bipartisan hearings on how platforms like Facebook, Google, and Twitter need to improve. But I will not participate in an attempt to use the committee’s serious subpoena power for a partisan effort 40 days before an election," Cantwell said in a statement.

Because of the senator's move, Wicker scheduled a vote on the subpoenas for Oct. 1.

The chairman wants to compel the CEOs to testify before his committee about Section 230.

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