Texas law banning major social media companies from deleting political speech became the first of its kind to come into force Wednesday, asking tough questions for major web platforms on how to follow the rules.
The law, which applies to social media platforms in the United States with 50 million or more monthly active users, was passed last year by lawmakers protesting sites like Facebook and Twitter over the deletion of posts by conservative publishers and personalities. The law allows users or the attorney general to sue online platforms that open posts because they express certain views.
By brief order Wednesday, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals of the United States, located in New Orleans, overturned an earlier ruling that suspended the state from enforcing the law. While tech industry groups protesting the law are likely to appeal the decision, it creates uncertainty for major web platforms that can now go to court when they decide to cancel content for violating their rules.
The unexpected decision comes amid a wider debate in Washington, D.C., and the wider foreign capitulation on how to balance free expression and security on the Internet. Some members of Congress have suggested the responsibility of online platforms when they promote discriminatory advertising or misinformation about public health. The EU last month reached an agreement on rules aimed at combating misinformation and increasing transparency about the work of social media companies.
But conservatives have said that platforms remove too much – too little – content. Many of them applauded Elon Musk for his recent acquisition of Twitter as he promised light word restrictions. When the site banned President Donald J. Trump After the January 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol, Republicans proposed legislation in state houses to regulate how companies implement their policies.
“My office has just won another big victory against BIG TECH,” Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said on Twitter after the law was restored. Mr Paxton’s spokesman did not provide details on how the attorney general planned to enforce the law.
Florida passed a bill last year that fined companies if they confiscated the accounts of some political candidates, but a federal judge suspended its enactment after tech industry groups sued. The Texas bill takes a slightly different approach, stating that the platform “may not censor the user, user’s expressions or the expression of another person” based on “user or other person discretion”.
The law does not prevent platforms from deleting content when they are notified by organizations that monitor child sexual exploitation online, or when it “contains a specific threat of violence” against someone based on race or other protected traits. The law also contains provisions that require transparency of online platforms in relation to their moderation policies.
When the Texas governor signed the state bill in September, the tech industry sued to block it. He argued that the ban placed on the platforms violated their right to free speech, to remove everything they considered disgusting.
The Texas District Court for the United States suspended the law in December, saying it violated the Constitution. When the appellate court overturned a district court ruling Wednesday, it did not touch on the substance of the law.
Carl Sabo, vice president of NetChoice, a group funded by companies including Google, Meta and Twitter that are suing to block the law, said: “We are considering our options and plan to appeal the order immediately. “.
Speakers on Facebook and Twitter declined to comment on their plans.
Jamile Jaffer, executive director of Columbia University’s Knight First Amendment Institute, which opposed the laws in Texas and Florida, said it was “really disturbing” that the Court of Appeals had apparently bought into the Texas argument that the law was lawful. .
“Accepting this theory means giving the government broad powers to distort or manipulate online discourse,” he said.
Critics of the law say they believe it will leave the platforms in a state of disarray: abandon disinformation and racist content, or face lawsuits across Texas. Daphne Keller, a former Google lawyer and now director of the platform regulation program at Stanford University’s Cyber Policy Center, said the company’s compliance with the law would “radically change the services they offer.”
Ms Keller said companies could consider restricting access to their websites in Texas. But it is unclear whether the move itself violates the law.
If you’re a company, I’m sure you’m thinking, ‘Can we do that?’ He said. “Then the question is how it will play in the eyes of the public.”