A Georgia Senate panel Tuesday passed a bill that would allow people to sue social media companies if their posts are removed or altered because of the views they express.
Supporters say Senate Bill 393 would prevent Facebook, Twitter and other companies from censoring conservative political views — a common complaint of Republicans at a time when social media platforms have deleted thousands of false or misleading posts about election fraud, COVID-19 vaccines and other topics.
Critics say the bill would make it harder for social media companies to police harmful content such as bullying, racism, hate speech and spam.
The bill, its supporters say, would treat the platforms like telephone companies, railroads and other “common carriers” whose services are so vital that they should be limited in their ability to discriminate against customers. They said the companies would still be able to ban pornography and other unlawful content.
“What it can’t do is, ‘we’re going to discriminate against certain kinds of viewpoints,’ for example, those who are skeptical of the public policy response to COVID,” said Adam Candeub, a Michigan State University law professor who testified Tuesday before the Senate Regulated Industries and Utilities Committee.
The bill’s opponents say it would violate the companies’ constitutional rights to determine what type of content they publish.
“The government cannot compel private companies to carry speech that they otherwise would not carry,” Chris Marchese, counsel for the tech industry group NetChoice, told the panel last week.
The debate comes as Republicans have accused social media companies of demonstrating an anti-conservative bias.
In perhaps the most famous example, Facebook suspended former President Donald Trump’s accounts and Twitter permanently banned him after he spread false allegations of election fraud for weeks after he lost to Democrat Joe Biden in the 2020 election. That misinformation was part of Trump’s concerted campaign to overturn the election in Georgia and other swing states, and the social networks said he stoked violence ahead of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.
The companies also have targeted COVID-19 misinformation that critics say has cost lives amid the coronavirus pandemic.
SB 393 would designate social media companies with at least 20 million active U.S. users as common carriers with limited ability to discriminate against the views of their customers. It also would give customers the right to file civil lawsuits if they suffer such discrimination.
The bill also would require companies to disclose a variety of information, including how they decide to moderate, remove or deprioritize content and how they decide to suspend or remove accounts.
Sen. John Albers, R-Roswell, said social media companies are monopolies that wield tremendous power over the lives of their customers. He cited his own experience — Albers lost his job after an interest group falsely claimed on Twitter that he had supported certain election legislation. On Tuesday, Albers said he complained to Twitter about the post, but the company did not take it down until after he lost his job.
Albers acknowledged that SB 393 would not have prevented the circumstances that cost him his job. But he supported the bill as a way to rein in the power of social media companies.
Industry representatives said federal law and the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution allow social media companies to moderate content that appears on their platforms. Marchese said companies should be able to draft rules in response to harmful activities as they arise.
“That’s not to say there isn’t a problem. There are genuine instances where they make split-second judgments and they got it wrong,” he said. “But who would have guessed that teenagers would one day eat Tide Pods?”
Marchese also cited Trump’s suspension from Facebook and Twitter.
“The president, although he is an incredibly important person, is not above the rules the rest of us have to follow,” he said.
Federal courts have already blocked laws in Florida and Texas that are similar to SB 393. But the measure passed the Senate committee by a vote of 6 to 5. It now goes to the Rules Committee, which will determine whether it gets a vote by the full Senate.