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Texas sued over social media censorship law

Internet trade organizations say a new state law aimed at protecting conservative voices on social media violates platforms’ First Amendment rights.

AUSTIN, Texas (CN) — Two internet trade groups that represent the largest tech companies in America filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday challenging a new Texas law meant to curb censorship of political speech by social media users.

NetChoice and the Computer and Communications Industry Association, or CCIA, advocate for the free enterprise and expression of internet companies and consumers and lobby for limited government regulation of the internet.

Their lawsuit filed in Austin federal court against Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton challenges House Bill 20, a law that regulates social media companies’ ability to remove users from their sites.

Signed into law by Republican Governor Greg Abbott earlier this month, HB 20 asserts that social media platforms are common carriers and are open for all to use as a public forum. The bill requires platforms with over 50 million active users, including Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, to disclose all information regarding how they target users, promote content, moderate users and use algorithms.

In addition, platforms must publish a biannual “transparency report” that discloses instances that the site was alerted to illegal activity and the number of times the platform took action to remove content or users due to violating the platform’s content policies.

The law was passed in the wake of former President Donald Trump being permanently banned from Twitter and suspended from Facebook through at least 2023 following the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters.

“There is a dangerous movement by social media companies to silence conservative viewpoints and ideas,” Abbott said in a statement after signing HB 20 into law. He and the Republican lawmakers who crafted the bill believe that it will protect conservatives from being removed from social media platforms for expressing their political ideas.  

But in their complaint, NetChoice and the CCIA say the tech companies they represent “have First Amendment rights to engage in their own speech and to exercise editorial discretion over the speech published on their websites and applications.”

They argue Texas is trying to tell social media platforms what should and should not be allowed on their sites.

“At a minimum, H.B. 20 would unconstitutionally require platforms like YouTube and Facebook to disseminate, for example, pro-Nazi speech, terrorist propaganda, foreign government disinformation, and medical misinformation,” the complaint states.

NetChoice President and CEO Steve DelBianco told reporters Wednesday that social media platforms “can’t be forced to carry content that violates the community standards that they use to curate a community of online content that suits their advertisers and audience.” 

Furthermore, NetChoice and CCIA say their members have already had to spend money and reorganize staff to comply with the bill. 

The groups argue social media sites are protected from HB 20 by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which shields platforms from liability for content that is posted to their sites by users. Because Section 230 is a part of federal law, the plaintiffs argue, it supersedes any state law and therefore HB 20 cannot be enforced.

Section 230 has drawn criticism in recent years.

People on the ideological right, including Trump, have accused tech companies of using Section 230 to censor them on their sites and prop up liberal voices and causes. The disgruntled former president says it was illegal censorship when he was removed from social media after he used the platforms to promote his widely debunked claims that the 2020 election was stolen from him.

Others have called upon Section 230 to be repealed because in their view, platforms have not done enough to limit the spread of violent messaging, misinformation and racism on their sites and they should be held accountable.  

NetChoice and CCIA are asking the court to block enforcement of HB 20 and declare social media platforms are protected under Section 230.

A similar law in Florida was also challenged earlier this year by NetChoice and the CCIA, using largely the same arguments as the case in Texas. Florida’s Senate Bill 7072 gives the attorney general or citizens of the state the ability to file suit against social media sites for removing content or users. A judge hearing that case blocked the law from being enforced.

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Categories / Civil Rights, Government, Law, Media

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