Conservatives Debate Senate Josh Hawley's Latest Salvo Against Silicon Valley

U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) arrives for the continuation of the Senate impeachment trial of President Trump at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S., January 23, 2020. REUTERS/Erin Scott
February 10, 2020 Topic: Politics Region: Americas Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: Josh HawleyBig TechSilicon ValleyCensorshipFree Markets

Conservatives Debate Senate Josh Hawley's Latest Salvo Against Silicon Valley

Censure the censors?

  • Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri is proposing a complete overhaul of the Federal Trade Commission, arguing that the agency is not capable of regulating big tech issues.
  • Some conservatives say the idea has merit so long as it helps prevent Silicon Valley companies from censoring conservatives, while others say the proposal goes too far.
  • Hawley’s idea comes as he continues to push a robust effort to amend a more than 20-year-old law protecting internet companies from being sued for content posted on their platforms. 

Conservatives are considering what to make of Sen. Josh Hawley’s long-shot proposal Monday to completely overhaul the regulatory agency responsible for policing privacy and antitrust issues.

The Missouri Republican is angling to deconstruct the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and fold it into the Department of Justice, according to a proposal Hawley’s published Monday. Hawley and other conservatives believe the 100-year-old agency is not equipped to regulate today’s big tech firms.

“The FTC isn’t working. It wastes time in turf wars with the DOJ, nobody is accountable for decisions, and it lacks the ‘teeth’ to get after Big Tech’s rampant abuses,” Hawley said in a press statement addressing the new proposal.

“Congress needs to do something about it,” he added.

The FTC’s jurisdiction is divided, making it difficult for the agency to properly regulate industries, Hawley’s proposal notes.

“It [FTC] wastes time in turf wars with the Department of Justice (DOJ) while failing to confront the increasing concentration in our economy, in the tech sector most obviously. And it is woefully unaccountable,” the proposal notes.

Hawley’s move comes as he tries to amend a law protecting tech companies from being sued for content users post on their platforms.

Hawley introduced the Ending Support for Internet Censorship Act in June 2019, which seeks to amend Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a law passed in 1996 when the internet was young and growing. Congress was concerned at the time that subjecting internet companies to the same civil liability as all other businesses would stymie growth.

Section 230 was implemented in response to Stratton Oakmont v. Prodigy, a 1995 case where the investment firm Stratton Oakmont sued Prodigy over message board posts it said were defamatory. A court determined that since Prodigy, an online service that folded in 2001, was liable for what was published since it acted as a type of editor of the website. Lawmakers etched out the law in 1996, which ultimately overturned the court’s decision.

Hawley’s bill, if it becomes law, would provide big tech companies such immunity only if they can show they are politically neutral. Conservatives are not sure what to think of Hawley’s Monday proposal, with some hoping it will help pull back what they believe are big tech’s penchant for censoring conservative content.

“Anything that clarifies and makes Section 230 applicable to all is a good thing. Right now, it’s incomprehensible and almost unenforceable, which is just what those hoping to dodge it want,” Brent Bozell, president of the Media Research Center, said in a statement to the Daily Caller News Foundation.

Bozell has been one of several conservatives who support Hawley’s beef with Section 230. Other analysts are more circumspect.

“[T]his could simply be his attempt to try and develop more regulatory tools to attack technology platforms,” Jeffrey Westling, an analyst at R Street, told the DCNF. Putting the independent FTC under the yoke of the executive branch could “allow more partisan executive action against tech firms,” he noted.

Westling did note that the FTC and DOJ’s responsibilities often conflict. He cited one example where the DOJ filed a brief in opposition to the FTC’s enforcement actions against Qualcomm litigation in 2019. Still, folding the one into the other could create unforeseen abuses in the future, according to Westling.

“A future President could use this same structural change to target industries they dislike,” he said in an email.

Neither the FTC nor the Department of Justice have responded to the DCNF’s requests for comment.

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Image: Reuters.