ATLANTA — A Georgia state Senate committee has advanced a proposal for the state to prohibit social media platforms from removing or censoring content amid an outcry from conservatives that their political views are being discriminated against, even though a similar Texas law has been put on hold by a federal court.
The Senate Regulated Industries and Utilities Committee voted 6-5 on Tuesday for Senate Bill 393, sending it to the full Senate for more debate. It declares that social media companies that have more than 20 million users in the United States are common carriers and that they can't block people from receiving certain messages based on viewpoints, location, race, ethnicity, religion, political beliefs, gender, sexual orientation or disability.
Republican State Sen. Greg Dolezal of Cumming says the measure is needed to ensure that everyone can participate in a crucial means of free expression.
"In the same way that I can walk out in front of the Capitol, walk outside of this room, and communicate my speech and not be censored, we believe that the same thing should happen in the modern public square, which are these social media platforms," Dolezal said.
Senate Republicans have declared it one of their priorities to pass this year. The move comes after social media companies banned Donald Trump in the last days of his presidency, adding to claims that conservatives are being unfairly treated.
But the technology industry says the measure is illegal, in part because it would unconstitutionally make private companies host speech they don't agree with. They also argue that private owners should be able to do as they please with their own property.
"Our members have a First Amendment right to exercise editorial discretion in deciding how to curate and moderate content that is posted on their websites," Chris Marchese, a lawyer for trade group Net Choice, told the committee last week.
Researchers have not found widespread evidence that social media companies are biased against conservative news, posts or materials.
In a 2021 report, New York University's Stern Center for Business and Human Rights called the accusations political disinformation spread by Republicans.
The bill says social media companies must publish how it moderates content, targets content to specific users, and how it boosts the reach or hides specific content. It also says social media companies have to publish a report every six months on how often they were alerted to potentially illegal content and how many times they removed or downplayed content and suspended or removed users.
Anyone who doesn't think a company is following the law could file a civil lawsuit, including a class action, in Georgia courts.
Servando Esparza, a lobbyist for trade group TechNet, warned last week that forcing a company to disclose its algorithm for moderating content could provide a roadmap for people seeking to share things like child pornography to get around current protections.
Dolezal said companies could still pull down content that was illegal.
The argument comes down to whether lawmakers and judges regard Facebook more like a telephone company, which traditionally had to serve all users who paid their bills, or a print publisher that can say what it wants and ignore other perspectives within broad guidelines.
Dolezal acknowledged that the state would be sued if it passed the law, but argued a challenge to the Supreme Court could break new and desirable ground.
Professor Adam Candeub of Michigan State University, who was deputy assistant secretary for telecommunications and information and later deputy associate attorney general under Trump, claimed Tuesday that social media censorship may have thrown the 2020 election to Democrat Joe Biden and squelched worthy scientific debate over how to respond to COVID-19. Despite tech companies announcing a string of new rules around COVID-19 and vaccine misinformation during the pandemic, falsehoods have still found big audiences on the platforms.
"What is the burden on the social media companies?" Candeub asked. "They may have to have some accounts they don't like. It's very difficult to see what is this huge imposition, unless the owners of social media companies want to use their vast power to shift public opinion."
But Committee Chairman Bill Cowsert, an Athens Republican, noted that the measure could have unintended consequences, noting Trump's plans for his own social media site.
"He's now creating a network, a social media platform," Cowsert said. "You would likewise prevent him from excluding radical left viewpoints that he might totally disagree with, if this were to pass, right?"