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Texas governor signs bill prohibiting social media giants from blocking users based on viewpoint

The law is an escalation of a conservative critique of Silicon Valley and will probably face legal challenges from the industry

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) signed a law aimed at social media giants, as conservatives escalate their criticism of the companies’ content-moderation decisions. (LM Otero/AP)

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) on Thursday signed a bill that would prohibit large tech companies from blocking or restricting people or their posts based on their viewpoint, setting the stage for a legal battle with the tech industry.

The law applies to social media companies with more than 50 million monthly active users in the United States, including Facebook, Twitter and Google’s YouTube, and requires them to create reports on any illegal or potentially policy-violating content, as well as build a complaint system, where people could challenge companies’ decisions to remove content or flag illegal activity. Individuals and the state attorney general could file lawsuits if they believe that the tech companies wrongfully banned them from their platforms.

“It is now law that conservative viewpoints in Texas cannot be banned on social media,” Abbott said. Conservatives have long claimed without evidence that Silicon Valley social media companies are censoring them based on their political affiliation. The companies deny those accusations.

Abbott’s signature follows a similar effort in Florida, where Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signed a law that would bar social media companies from suspending political candidates in the run-up to elections, and make it easier for the Florida state attorney general and individuals to bring lawsuits when they think tech companies have acted unfairly. A federal judge in June blocked that law from taking effect, suggesting it would be found unconstitutional after tech industry groups brought a challenge. DeSantis’s administration appealed the judge’s ruling.

Tech industry groups have criticized the Texas law, and the industry is likely to bring a similar challenge in the Lone Star State to prevent it from taking effect.

Florida governor signs bill barring social media companies from blocking political candidates

The Texas law argues that social media platforms function as “common carriers,” reflecting an increasingly common argument in conservative circles that social media companies should be forced to host all users. It was popularized by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas who earlier this year suggested in an opinion that social media companies could be regulated like common carriers, such as phone companies, which face specific regulations because of the importance of the services they offer.

Eric Goldman, a professor at Santa Clara University School of Law, said the Texas law does not “survive critical scrutiny,” and he expects that it will be struck down by the court system like the law in Florida was. He said both the Florida and Texas laws “represent an effort to play for partisan crowd, not to make good policy.”

“Even if it’s struck down, it’s a symptom of a much bigger structural problem we have in the country that politicians think this is how they should be spending their time,” Goldman said, noting that taxpayer dollars would likely be spent defending the laws in court.

Abbott and DeSantis are viewed as potential presidential contenders heading into the 2024 election, and their focus on the social media companies underscores how the GOP increasingly views tech regulation as an issue that rallies political supporters. Abbott claims that freedom of speech “is under attack in Texas” and said that by signing the law, he was fighting back against “Big Tech political censorship.”

“There is a dangerous movement by some social media companies to silence conservative ideas and values,” he said, without citing evidence to support that claim. “This is wrong, and we will not allow it in Texas.”

Conservatives have escalated their attacks on tech over the past year, particularly after companies including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube took the unprecedented step of banning President Donald Trump from their platforms for violating their policies around the Jan. 6 attack at the U.S. Capitol. Trump in July filed lawsuits targeting Facebook, Twitter and YouTube over alleged censorship, which became a fundraising opportunity for Republicans.

Adam Kovacevich, the CEO of the Chamber of Progress, which counts Facebook, Google and other tech giants among its funders, said he thinks the Texas law runs afoul of the First Amendment, but Republicans are moving forward with it because they see it as an opportunity for political gain.

“This will certainly be ruled unconstitutional as well, but Republicans won’t pay any price because they view it as good politics,” he said. “It’s going to keep heading into a First Amendment buzz saw.”

Kovacevich and other tech groups have also warned that the bill could force social media platforms to host hateful, racist, obscene and otherwise problematic content, which companies largely prohibit in their policies.

“Moderation of user posts is crucial to keeping the internet safe for Texas families, but this bill would put the Texas government in charge of content policies,” NetChoice President Steve DelBianco said in a statement.

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