A state House panel on Wednesday heard testimony — but took no action — on a bill to prevent social media companies from blocking or censoring user content.
It’s unclear what mechanism the state of Michigan would have to regulate tech giants like Google, Facebook and Twitter. House Bill 4801 is sponsored by state Rep. John Reilly (R-Oakland Twp.) and is co-sponsored by state Rep. Matt Maddock (R-Milford).
Reilly told reporters that, if enacted, the legislation would allow users who believe they’ve been censored by tech companies to engage in civil suits against the firms.
“[The state] would be basically allowing people to use the court systems,” Reilly said. “I would think that would be one of the main avenues where we’d see the change come about.”
Reilly said the goal of the bill is to amend the Michigan Consumer Protection Act to ensure that the private companies are “content neutral,” meaning they would show no bias.
Asked by reporters whether the legislation could bring about more online harassment in the form of racism or sexism, Reilly said that’s a possible outcome.
“I would just respond … that’s part of the real world,” Reilly said.
“We’re in a world where there’s going to be certain people who are offended by certain things,” he continued. “That’s part of living in a world where there’s different viewpoints. Yeah, there are maybe certain people that are going to be offended because they see something that they didn’t see before. That’s totally possible.”
The legislation would make it so a social media company “could not block, censor, or remove a user’s speech, ban, shadow ban, deplatform, deboost, or demonetize a user, or otherwise restrict the speech of a user,” according to a legislative analysis by the nonpartisan House Fiscal Agency.
The bill before the state House Communications and Technology Committee seems to have some roots in conservative media where talk of “shadowbanning” has been prevalent for years, including from President Donald Trump last year.
Twitter “SHADOW BANNING” prominent Republicans. Not good. We will look into this discriminatory and illegal practice at once! Many complaints.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 26, 2018
Under the idea of shadowbanning, users who share content — language, thoughts, ideas, etc. — that goes against the views of the social media company have their posts suppressed by the company’s algorithms or don’t show up in searches.
There’s little evidence to suggest that companies like Facebook or Twitter engage in the practice, as the Daily Beast has previously reported. The practice has also been debunked by the New York Times.
Two supporters of Reilly’s bill shared their stories of having posts censored on social media.
One was Katerina Klawes, a former student at Northern Michigan University who was sexually assaulted, as New York Magazine has reported. Following the assault, she testified that the university told her not to speak about the assault.
She later wrote about the incident on Facebook and the post was removed, only to be reinstated later without explanation, Klawes said in her testimony.
“After being silenced by my university, I was also silenced by Facebook,” Klawes said.
The bill is strongly opposed by NetChoice, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that brands itself as “a trade association of businesses who share the goal of promoting free speech and free enterprise on the net.”
Carl Szabo, the group’s vice president and general counsel, said passage of the bill would likely lead to companies ceasing “content moderation,” essentially opening up users to the potential for increased harassment, and would violate the First Amendment.
“It’s injecting government into private contract and private business,” Szabo said. “It has unintended consequences that we will begin to see. And fortunately, it’s unnecessary.”