Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) on Thursday introduced legislation that would remove the liability protections social media companies enjoy if misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines or other health emergencies is shared on their platforms.
Klobuchar's bill would create an exemption to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a law that provides platforms like Facebook and Twitter a shield from being sued for content posted on their websites by third parties. During an official public health emergency declared by the Secretary for Health and Human Services, if an internet platform permits misinformation to spread through its algorithms that platform would be legally liable for doing so, the Wall Street Journal reported. The federal government, through HHS in consultation with other agencies, would determine what constitutes health misinformation.
"Earlier this year, I called on Facebook and Twitter to remove accounts that are responsible for producing the majority of misinformation about the coronavirus, but we need a long-term solution," Klobuchar said in a statement. "This legislation will hold online platforms accountable for the spread of health-related misinformation."
The bill is co-sponsored by Sen. Ben Ray Lujan (D-N.M.).
Democrats fear that misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines is one of the primary reasons for vaccine hesitancy in the United States. An increasing number of COVID-19 cases caused by the delta variant has prompted public health officials to warn that mask mandates and other coronavirus restrictions may return if the remaining unvaccinated Americans do not take the COVID-19 vaccine shots.
White House chief medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci has floated vaccine mandates at the local level to force the hesitant to get vaccinated, but a recent poll found that 71% of Americans would oppose such an order.
Nearly all those who are hospitalized or die from a COVID-19 infection are unvaccinated.
The Biden administration has begun targeting purported misinformation about the vaccines on social media platforms in an effort White House officials claim will save lives.
Last week, White House press secretary Jen Psaki admitted that the federal government is flagging certain posts on platforms like Facebook for sharing misinformation and is advising that social media companies censor such posts. President Joe Biden went so far as to accuse Facebook of literally "killing people" by permitting certain posts on its platform before walking back his comments and saying he hopes "that they would do something about the misinformation, the outrageous misinformation about the vaccine."
Critics have accused the administration of coopting social media companies to censor speech, but Psaki denied such accusations to reporters and insisted that the government is merely advising social media companies and that these private companies make their own decisions about what is allowed on their platforms.
Republicans have also called for Section 230 reforms, though for entirely different reasons than Democrats. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) introduced a bill in June that would remove Big Tech companies' liability protections "unless they submit to an external audit that proves by clear and convincing evidence that their algorithms and content-removal practices are politically neutral."
Where Republicans believe internet platforms should be liable for censoring speech, Democrats want these platforms to be liable for failing to censor speech that contradicts the determinations of the government's experts.