The internet collectively breathed a sigh of relief last month after the Supreme Court temporarily blocked Texas HB20 — a proposal that would prohibit online platforms from removing hateful, violent and spammy content, forcing them to host it. It’s the latest Republican attempt at government intervention which they say will prevent “censorship” of conservative viewpoints.
The court’s decision was swift and came down on the side of preserving online services’ current freedom to moderate — for now. But Democrats calling for companies to take down harmful content have to understand the urgency of what still is on the line.
Right now, online services can take down what’s known as “lawful but awful,” speech. If someone were to post a video of animal abuse on Facebook, Meta can delete it. If a Russian troll were to tweet out misinformation, Twitter could ban them and remove the content. And if someone were to post violent, white supremist content to YouTube, the platform could remove it. The content in terms of speech is legal, but removed by platforms to keep their communities healthy and inviting.
If Texas has its way, platforms would be barred from removing this content by making it illegal for platforms with more than 50 million monthly users from moderating posts based on “viewpoint.” But in the same way Congress can’t compel The New York Times to cover certain topics, Texas can’t compel social media companies to host certain kinds of speech.
The stakes here are very real. Meta announced last fall that it had removed over 20 million pieces of content from Facebook containing misleading information about COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic. Democrats have called on companies to go even further, introducing legislation that would hold the social platforms themselves responsible for health-related misinformation on their platforms.
But proposals like the one in Texas would have expressly prevented companies from taking any action whatsoever to prevent misinformation posted by users. And while Republicans state legislators craft bills forcing platforms to carry vile content, the response from Democratic lawmakers in Congress has been missing.
Some progressive organizations have sounded the alarm. As the Supreme Court considered Texas’ new social media law, our organization, Chamber of Progress, led a coalition of groups opposing the legislation, including the NAACP and the Anti-Defamation League as well as LGBT safety groups and child protection organizations. Progressives want to empower more content moderation, not less.
If Democratic lawmakers really want tech companies to moderate content and take down harmful content, now would be the time to speak up against Texas’ law.
Big questions about the future of free speech online will be answered in the coming year. The Texas case will return to the appellate court for a decision on the underlying law, and more bills with similar intentions will likely make their way through Republican legislatures. If allowed to pass, they will cripple the ability of tech platforms to prevent misinformation, violence and hate from spreading online.
Democratic leaders are right to continue pushing tech to do more to mitigate harmful content. But they also have to stand up for companies’ legal ability to do so — and firm opposition against GOP proposals like HB20 would be an important first step.
Adam Kovacevich is the founder of Chamber of Progress, a center-left tech industry policy coalition promoting technology’s progressive future; corporate partners for Chamber of Progress include Amazon, Apple, Google and Facebook.