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Hawley proposes requiring tech companies to prove no bias

Republican Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri is doubling down on efforts to rein in big-tech companies by proposing that Facebook, Twitter and other online behemoths be required to prove they’re not using political bias to filter content.

The bill follows repeated assertions by President Donald Trump and other Republicans that big tech companies have an anti-conservative bias. Tech companies have denied any bias, either left or right.

The freshman lawmaker’s legislation introduced last week would require companies to prove to the Federal Trade Commission that their algorithms and other ways of filtering content are not biased against a particular party or candidate. If companies don’t do that, they would face losing protections in current law that shield them from being sued over user posts on their sites.

“Tech companies get a sweetheart deal that no other industry enjoys: complete exemption from traditional publisher liability in exchange for providing a forum free of political censorship,” Hawley said in a statement. “Unfortunately, and unsurprisingly, big tech has failed to hold up its end of the bargain.”

Internet lobbying groups swiftly slammed Hawley’s bill, arguing it would discourage websites from self-filtering content including hate speech or extremism by opening them up to lawsuits from blocked or censored users.

“This bill forces platforms to make an impossible choice: either host reprehensible, but First Amendment protected speech, or lose legal protections that allow them to moderate illegal content like human trafficking and violent extremism,” Internet Association President and CEO Michael Beckerman said in a statement. “That shouldn’t be a tradeoff.”

The Internet Association’s members include powerhouses such as Google, Facebook and Amazon.

Americans for Prosperity policy analyst Billy Easley said in a statement that chipping away at liability protections in current law “creates a scenario where government has the ability to police your speech and determine what you can or cannot say online.”

There are exceptions in the bill that would allow companies to block content if it’s “necessary for business” or any content that is not protected speech. The legislation would apply to companies with at least 30 million active monthly U.S. users or 300 million active monthly users worldwide.

Hawley’s bill comes as big tech is under fire from the right and the left. While Republicans have cried foul over alleged anti-conservative bias, Democrats are slamming companies for not doing enough to combat the spread of misinformation and “fake news.”

Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi ripped into Facebook last month for not removing a doctored video in which she appears to slur her words. The altered video had been slowed down, giving the false appearance that Pelosi was drunk, ill or otherwise impaired.

Congress earlier this month began a bipartisan investigation into the market dominance of Silicon Valley companies.

Hawley’s agenda has long focused on big tech, both during his time as Missouri’s former state attorney general and now as a U.S. senator.

As Missouri attorney general, Hawley launched an investigation of Google for potential violations of the state’s consumer-protection and antitrust laws and demanded information from Facebook following allegations that the social media giant mishandled user data.

In May, he introduced legislation to give internet users the ability to opt out of allowing their personal data to be tracked and collected.

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Associated Press writer Marcy Gordon contributed to this report from Washington, D.C.

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