Republican lawmakers on Wednesday introduced legislation aimed at fighting what they see as anti-conservative bias on Google and other social media.
GOP senators introduced legislation to strip Big Tech of liability protections and hit the companies with $5,000 fines for unfair treatment.
In another swipe, Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican, sent a letter to Google warning of repercussions if the company follows through with a threat to punish conservative website The Federalist over its content.
The Cruz letter and the proposed legislation take aim at Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which has long shielded internet companies from legal liability for material that users post on their sites.
“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,” said Sen. Josh Hawley, a Missouri Republican who introduced the legislation to remove the lawsuit protections and impose fines.
“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,” Mr. Hawley said.
Three Republican co-sponsors are Sens. Mike Braun of Indiana, Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Marco Rubio of Florida.
The proposal does not eliminate Section 230 protections, which some tech allies fear may happen.
Mr. Cotton said Twitter recently attempted to bully him into deleting tweets that opposed rioting and looting during racial justice protests.
“One of their low-level employees in Washington, D.C., just contacted my office out of the blue and said you have to delete these tweets in 30 minutes or we’re going to permanently lock your account,” Mr. Cotton said on “Fox and Friends.”
He said one of his offending phrases was: “No quarter for insurrectionists, anarchists, rioters and looters.”
Mr. Cotton said the entire process struck him as secretive and unfair, though he eventually won the argument with Twitter and his tweets and his account remained intact.
The Justice Department came out with a proposal Wednesday to limit Section 230, including revoking immunity if platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Google’s YouTube facilitate or solicit federal criminal activity such as drug trafficking.
Congress would need to pass legislation for the proposal to take effect.
The various moves against Big Tech follow President Trump’s executive action last month that directed the Federal Communications Commission to strip social media of its lawsuit protection under Section 230. He issued the order after Twitter fact-checked one of his posts, part of a feud between Mr. Trump and his favorite social media outlet.
Mr. Trump said he wanted to “defend free speech from one of the gravest dangers it has faced in American history.”
The order, however, is on shaky legal ground.
Mr. Cruz, chairman of a Senate subcommittee with oversight of constitutional rights, raised Section 230 in accusing Google of hypocrisy in how it applies the protections.
He said Google targeted The Federalist for offensive comments posted on its stories while Google’s own platform, YouTube, had similarly offensive comments.
“It is also deeply ironic that Google is financially punishing a website for speech that appears on its platform,” Mr. Cruz wrote in the letter.
He said Google has long insisted it is protected by Section 230 but for some reason wasn’t treating The Federalist the same way.
Initial reports suggested that Google banned The Federalist from its advertising network — what is known as demonetizing. Google said it only put the site on notice that it could face penalties.
Several fact-checking outfits that Google said it trusts flagged The Federalist.
In explaining its decision, Google said it found comments on Federalist articles to be dangerous or offensive, and demanded that the comment section be removed.
“Our policies do not allow ads to run against dangerous or derogatory content, which includes comments on sites, and we offer guidance and best practices to publishers on how to comply,” the company said on Twitter.
That provoked Mr. Cruz, who as chairman of the Constitution subcommittee on the Senate Judiciary Committee requested that Google turn over any communications it has had with the fact-checkers about The Federalist. He also asked Google to disclose whether it has policed the comment sections of left-wing organizations.
“Will Google apply the same standards to all media organizations or just those with which it has political disagreements?” the senator asked.
In his parting shot, Mr. Cruz suggested that Google may face punishment as an illegal monopoly under the Sherman Act. That landmark legislation was used to break up big monopolies in the late 1800s.
Mr. Cruz suggested that if Google is treating YouTube, its own media platform, differently than other outlets, that could be inconsistent with the law.
• Stephen Dinan and David Sherfinski contributed to this report.