Republicans, who traditionally oppose government regulation, pushed for new rules governing online platforms' speech policies in a high-profile hearing Wednesday that grilled the CEOs of Facebook, Google and Twitter.
The big picture: When GOP legislators led the fight against net neutrality rules earlier in the decade, they warned against turning the internet into a regulated space with government-imposed checks on online speech.
- Now, their campaign against what they see as censorship of conservatives has led them down a regulatory path that looks strikingly similar, Axios' Kyle Daly reports.
Driving the news: The Senate Commerce Committee Wednesday held a hearing with the CEOs of Facebook, Twitter and Google titled "Does Section 230's Sweeping Immunity Enable Big Tech Bad Behavior?"
- GOP lawmakers spent much of the hearing focused not on that law per se — Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects online platforms against lawsuits over moderation decisions and user-posted content — but on allegations that tech companies censor conservatives.
Catch up quick: Many on the right, including President Trump, view platforms' efforts to police content such as misinformation related to COVID-19 or voting as censorship aimed specifically at them.
- At the hearing's start, Chairman Roger Wicker said Section 230 must be changed to stop platforms from singling out conservatives for punishment. "The time has come for that free pass to end," he said.
Between the lines: The way supporters of revoking or limiting Section 230 frame their case, it's about calling the government in to stop Big Tech's giants from promoting content they like and stifling content they don't like.
- The idea is something akin to an internet version of the Fairness Doctrine — the former Federal Communications Commission policy, abolished during the Reagan administration, that required broadcasters to represent both sides when airing programming on political controversies.
Flashback: A digital Fairness Doctrine was just what Republicans warned against when the FCC during the Obama administration passed net neutrality rules meant to keep broadband providers from blocking or slowing access to certain online content.
Of note: FCC commissioner Geoffrey Starks, a Democrat, drew a connection between net neutrality and Section 230 during the agency's most recent public meeting Tuesday, as it voted to reaffirm its 2018 move to scrap the Obama-era rules.
- "These pieces don't fit together," Starks said. "You can't pretend to have a light-touch regulatory framework when you're proposing to regulate online content with a heavy hand. This ideological about-face shows that the imminent Section 230 rulemaking is more about pleasing the President than making good policy."
Be smart: Some Republicans have already begun reading Fairness Doctrine-type principles into Section 230 as justification for revisiting it.
- Sens. Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz, who lit into Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey at Wednesday's hearing over bias claims, are among those who have said Section 230 is meant only to protect politically neutral online forums.
- Such a requirement doesn't appear in the law, and Sen. Ron Wyden, who co-wrote it in 1996, is among those who have said that was never the intention.
The other side: Conservatives maintain that Section 230 serves as a special dispensation giving legal protections to the tech industry that don't apply to other sectors, such as publishing.
Our thought bubble: Any rule change that enforces a requirement of political neutrality to earn liability protection will land just as hard on the internet's conservative discussion spaces as it does on liberals. The biggest companies, like those at yesterday's hearing, will be able to afford the litigation such a future will require, while smaller operations could drown.