Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 is under a harsh new spotlight in the wake of Google's move to force conservative news site The Federalist to remove its comments section or risk being demonetized, and a new bill would stop tech giants from taking advantage of the controversial piece of legislation.
Section 230 states that "no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider."
The section has been pivotal in the rise of today's social media giants by allowing not only Internet service providers – but also Google, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and others – to be shielded from liability from content posted on their platforms by third parties, in most cases.
But some critics feel that Google should no longer benefit from protections of Section 230 if the tech giant will not extend the same protections to other sites — and Google did not offer those protections to The Federalist.
President Trump also signed an executive order in May that could remove some big tech protections if companies engage in "selective censorship" harmful to national discourse. The order came shortly after Twitter attached fact-check warnings to some of the president's tweets.
"Section 230 was not intended to allow a handful of companies to grow into titans controlling vital avenues for our national discourse under the guise of promoting open forums for debate, and then to provide those behemoths blanket immunity when they use their power to censor content and silence viewpoints that they dislike," the executive order stated.
“Critics says Section 230 gives tech companies too much power over what is and is not allowed on their sites. Supporters — including a wide range of Internet companies, free-speech advocates and open-Internet proponents — say that without the law, online communication would be stifled and social media as we know it would cease to exist,” Washington Post's Rachel Lerman wrote last month when reporting the executive order.
Section 230 has many defenders in its current state, and Trump's attempts to alter how social media platforms are regulated have been met with resistance. For example, the Electronic Frontier Foundation calls Section 230 "one of the most valuable tools for protecting freedom of expression and innovation on the Internet."
However, Google's move to force The Federalist to remove its comments section or risk being demonetized has raised new questions.
Google controls the majority of online advertising and essentially has the ability to dictate what media organizations can publish, because they depend on the tech giant for revenue.
“If you’re in the news business, you obey Google. When Google tells you to do something, you do it. You have no choice. They can bankrupt you in a minute,” Fox News' Tucker Carlson explained on Tuesday.
For that reason, critics of Section 230 think Google is the key reason why changes need to take place.
“Google makes one of the strongest arguments yet for Section 230 reform,” Federal Communications Commission head Brendan Carr tweeted Tuesday to kick off a series of messages.
The latest calls for Section 230 reform came after NBC News reported on Tuesday that Google was allegedly removing two conservative news sites from its ad platform.
NBC News reported that Google was taking action against both The Federalist and ZeroHedge for articles that apparently "pushed unsubstantiated claims" about the Black Lives Matter movement and violated the search engine's policies that forbid the monetization of sites that provide "derogatory content."
Google insisted however that The Federalist was "never demonetized" and that it was the site's comments section that was in question, not any articles published by the site. ZeroHedge had already been demonetized.
As a result, Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., introduced legislation Wednesday to give Americans the ability to sue major tech companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter if they engage in selective censorship of political speech.
The Limiting Section 230 Immunity to Good Samaritans Act, cosponsored by Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Mike Braun, R-Ind., and Tom Cotton, R-Ark., would stop such companies from receiving immunity under section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, unless they update their terms of service to promise to operate in good faith.
“For too long, Big Tech companies like Twitter, Google and Facebook have used their power to silence political speech from conservatives without any recourse for users,” Hawley said in a statement. “Section 230 has been stretched and rewritten by courts to give these companies outlandish power over speech without accountability. Congress should act to ensure bad actors are not given a free pass to censor and silence their opponents.”
The bill would allow users to sue companies for breaching that contractual duty of good faith, and it would make them pay $5,000 plus legal fees to each user who prevails in a case against them.
Fox News’ Adam Shaw, Joseph A. Wulfsohn and Fox Business' Evie Fordham contributed to this report.