Michigan Bill Aims to Stop Facebook, Google From Blocking Speech

Michigan lawmakers want to prevent “content neutral” social media, Internet companies’ blocking of user content in hopes of protecting free speech. Companies can avoid fines by declaring themselves “a biased source.”
by Lauren Gibbons, MLive.com | October 12, 2019 AT 3:01 AM

(TNS) — Two Michigan lawmakers are hoping to put new restrictions on what social media and other technology companies like Facebook, YouTube or Google could ban from their sites.

House Bill 4801, sponsored by John Reilly, R-Oakland Twp., and co-sponsored by Rep. Matt Maddock, R-Milford, would prevent “content neutral” internet companies from restricting a user’s free speech by blocking or removing content, or preventing the content from being seen by other users.

It’s unclear how the legislation would be enforced or regulated if signed into law, and the bill hasn’t advanced past the committee level.

But during testimony in a recent House Communications and Technology Committee meeting, Reilly said he’s concerned about the influence big tech companies have on regulating speech through internal moderation now that the internet has become the “public square” for discourse.

“Social media is so intertwined with our culture, and it affects commerce, it affects many areas of our lives,” he said. “It’s just building and building, and more people are seeing a bias, and they’re concerned about it.”

Reilly said companies wouldn’t be impacted by the legislation if they declare themselves “a biased source.” When asked what factors would determine which sites are biased, neutral or otherwise, he said many questions would likely have to be settled in court.

Asked whether he was concerned the legislation could subject Michigan residents to more graphic violent, sexist or racist content if companies stop or significantly reduce what content they moderated, Reilly said, “That’s part of the real world.”

“We’re in a world where there’s going to be - certain people are offended by certain things over other people and that’s part of living in a world where there’s different viewpoints," he said. “Yeah, there may be certain people that are going to be offended because they see something that they didn’t see before. That’s totally possible.”

During the committee hearing, former Northern Michigan University student Katerina Klawes supported the legislation, citing previous experiences of being censored on the internet.

She said she was sexually assaulted while attending the university, and said when she tried to post about those experiences on social media in an effort to change university policy, her post was removed from the site by Facebook. Her post was ultimately reinstated nearly three weeks later, she said.

“Because Facebook would not provide any further information, I can only speculate whether university officials had my post flagged for harassment, or if it was some innocent mistake on Facebook’s part,” she said. “I do know that the information I shared on Facebook was well within the stated community guidelines. I had violated no policy.”

Carl Szabo, vice president and general counsel for the trade association Net Choice, told lawmakers the legislation is rife with “constitutional infirmities” and could lead to a number of unintended consequences, including incentivizing companies to content moderation in order to avoid liability.

The Washington, D.C.-based organization, which says it represents businesses “promoting free speech and free enterprise on the net” on its website, opposes the bill.

“Because the term neutrality is so amorphous and so subject to the eye of the beholder, it’s not going to pass constitutional muster,” Szabo said of the bill. “In order to survive a First Amendment challenge, you have to be a compelling government interest, narrowly tailored and least restrictive. This bill fails all three prongs.”

The legislation remains before the House Communications and Technology Committee. It would need to pass the House and Senate and be signed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to become law.

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