Social media censorship bills advance despite tech industry pressure

Nearly 50 bills were introduced in state legislatures this year with a censorship or deplatforming component.
This combination of 2017-2022 photos shows the logos of Facebook, YouTube, TikTok and Snapchat on mobile devices. (AP Photo, File)

Montana House Speaker Matt Regier (R) is leading the charge in his state to prohibit social media companies from censoring content, as a nearly identical law in Texas faces an uncertain future in court.

Republicans in the Arizona legislature are also advancing a social media censorship bill this year that mimics a contested Florida law.

The Montana and Arizona measures are among nearly 50 bills introduced this year that have a censorship or deplatforming component, according to tracking by the Computer & Communications Industry Association, a tech industry trade group that is suing to overturn the Florida and Texas laws. Both laws are now on hold while the U.S. Supreme Court weighs whether to take the cases. 

Regier told Pluribus News in a brief interview Thursday that he is unconcerned by the legal limbo.

“We’ve read the Constitution too, and we don’t let the judicial branch, what they might do, scare us away from good legislation, Regier said.

Under Regier’s bill, large social media companies would be deemed “common carriers,” akin to phone and internet companies, and be barred from censoring user posts based on factors such as the viewpoints expressed or the user’s geographic location.

The proposed law would also require companies to make their acceptable-use policies easily accessible and disclose how they curate, target, moderate and promote content. 

Every six months, the companies would have to publish a transparency report that includes how many times content was removed or deprioritized and how many accounts were suspended.

Regier’s measure would also require companies to inform users if their content is removed, explain why, and offer an avenue for appeal. Users could bring their own lawsuit — known as a private right of action — against a social media company for alleged violations of the law.

“I love what Texas did in protecting their citizens, I want Montana citizens to have their free speech protected too … whether they are conservative or liberal,” Regier said. “Texas plowed the ground first and we just tagged onto it.”

Regier’s bill was passed by the Montana House and is now advancing in the Senate, where it has drawn strong opposition from the tech industry. In a letter to the Senate Business, Labor, and Economic Affairs Committee, CCIA warned against passage of the law.

“[I]f social media services are compelled to treat all user-generated material with indifference as if they were common carriers, their platforms could become saturated with inappropriate and potentially dangerous content and behavior,” Jordan Rodell, CCIA’s state policy manager, said in the letter.

The letter included examples of content that social media companies would be barred from removing under the law, including “foreign disinformation, communist propaganda, and anti-American extremism, all of which are not inherently unlawful, and would appear to constitute a ‘viewpoint’ under [the bill].”

NetChoice, another trade group challenging the Florida and Texas laws, has also sent letters to Arizona and Montana lawmakers warning that the bills are unconstitutional and urging them to hold off until the current lawsuits are resolved.

NetChoice’s Amy Bos wrote that the Arizona bill — which like the Florida law aims to protect political candidates and news sites from deplatforming — would “give malicious actors and spammers a blueprint to flood Arizonans’ feeds with offensive content.” She also said the bill defines “journalistic enterprises” so broadly that it would include “creators who operate far outside the news media.” 

In signing Florida’s law in 2021, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) said it would protect “real Floridians … against the Silicon Valley elites.”

Even if the Arizona bill passes, it would likely face a veto by Gov. Katie Hobbs (D). The Montana bill could be supported by Gov. Greg Gianforte (R), who in December banned TikTok from government devices.

“I sure hope so,” Regier said when asked if the governor would be likely to sign his bill.

The effort by Republican state lawmakers to bar social media companies for removing content and users took off in 2021, after a conservative backlash to social media companies suspending former President Donald Trump and otherwise moderating content that was deemed to have violated user terms of service.

A 2021 study by the New York University Stern Center for Business and Human Rights found there was no evidence to support claims that tech companies censor conservative voices. 

Regier said he has not seen that study but that there is a general “notion out there that Big Tech wants to control our speech.”

“We can [pass a law], and if it’s not happening, then no harm, no foul,” Regier said.