Court of Appeals reinstates Texas law targeting social media companies
A Texas law prohibiting major social media companies from removing political speech became the first of its kind to go into effect on Wednesday, posing complicated questions for major web platforms about how to comply with the rules.
The law, which applies to social media platforms in the United States with 50 million or more monthly active users, was passed last year by lawmakers challenging sites like Facebook and Twitter for their removal from posts. editors and conservative personalities. The law allows users or the attorney general to sue online platforms that remove posts because they express a certain point of view.
In a brief order Wednesday, the New Orleans-based United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed an earlier ruling that barred the state from enforcing the law. While tech industry groups challenging the law are expected to appeal the ruling, it creates uncertainty for major web platforms that could now face lawsuits when they decide to remove content for breaking their rules. .
The surprise decision comes amid a broader debate in Washington, state houses and foreign capitals over how to balance free speech and online safety. Some members of Congress have proposed holding online platforms accountable when they promote discriminatory ads or false public health information. The European Union last month reached an agreement on rules to tackle misinformation and increase transparency about how social media companies operate.
But the curators said the platforms were removing too much – rather than too little – content. Many of them applauded Elon Musk’s recent purchase of Twitter because he promised lighter restrictions on speech. When the site banned President Donald J. Trump after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, Republicans in statehouses proposed legislation to regulate how companies enforce their policies.
“My office just got another BIG WIN against BIG TECH,” Ken Paxton, Texas Attorney General and Republican, said in a tweet after the law was reinstated. A spokesman for Mr Paxton did not provide details on how the attorney general planned to enforce the law.
Florida passed a bill last year that fined companies if they took down the accounts of certain political candidates, but a federal judge blocked it from going into effect after tech industry groups filed a lawsuit. The Texas bill takes a slightly different approach, stating that a platform “may not censor a user, a user’s expression, or a user’s ability to receive another’s expression. person” based on the “user’s or another person’s point of view”.
The law does not prevent platforms from removing content when notified by organizations that track online child sexual exploitation, or when it “consists of specific threats of violence” against someone because of his race or other protected qualities. The law also includes provisions that require online platforms to be transparent about their moderation policies.
When the governor of Texas signed the state bill into law in September, the tech industry filed a lawsuit to block it. He argued that the ban he was imposing on the platforms violated their own right to free speech to remove anything they deemed objectionable.
The United States District Court for the Western District of Texas suspended the law in December, saying it violated the Constitution. When the appeals court overturned the district court’s decision on Wednesday, it did not weigh in on the merits of the law.
Carl Szabo, the vice president of NetChoice, a group funded by companies such as Google, Meta and Twitter which filed a lawsuit to block the law, said: “We are weighing our options and plan to appeal the order immediately.”
Spokespersons for Facebook and Twitter declined to comment on their plans.
Jameel Jaffer, executive director of Columbia University’s Knight First Amendment Institute, which has filed briefs in Texas and Florida opposing the laws, said it was “really disturbing” that the appeals court apparently agreed with Texas’ argument that the law was legally authorized. .
“To accept this theory is to give the government the power to distort or manipulate online discourse,” he said.
Critics of the law say they believe it will leave the platforms in a bind: drop misinformation and racist content or face lawsuits across Texas. Daphne Keller, a former Google attorney who is now director of the platform regulation program at Stanford University’s Cyber Policy Center, said a company’s compliance with the law “would dramatically change the service that ‘she offers”.
Ms Keller said companies could consider restricting access to their websites in Texas. But it’s unclear whether that move would itself violate the law.
“If you’re the business, I’m sure you’re thinking, ‘Could we do this?’ “, she said. “Then there’s the question of how it would play out in the public eye.”