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Research & Commentary: Iowa House Considers Bill to Address Big Tech Censorship

March 8, 2021

In this Research & Commentary, Samantha Fillmore examines a House File in the Hawkeye State that would address big tech censorship.

The Iowa House of Representatives will be considering House File 633, an “Act relating to certain companies that censor online content.” This legislation would ensure that residents of the Hawkeye State have their First Amendment rights to freedom of expression of political speech protected from big tech censorship. If residents are found to have their constitutionally protected rights violated by a dominant social media company, the office of the Iowa Attorney General shall assess a civil penalty.

In the blink of an eye, the emergence of social media platforms has elevated the national conversation and political discourse to a breadth nearly unfathomable a decade ago. The associated emerging technologies and mediums promised democratization of free speech in a way never dreamed of. Free speech and political activism, once the realm of partisans and professional pundits, was accessible so that people who were once spectators were now engaged.

However, this mass communication network is managed by a handful of powerful tech titans, who are protected from liability and operate as monopolies. The consolidation of this power to these titans has now effectively erased the empowerment of millions of Americans and their newfound voices. Where it has empowered voices and people across the political spectrum, it has also empowered the voices that seek to divide, misinform, and manipulate.

According to Statista, the number of social network users worldwide reached 3.6 billion in 2020 and is projected to increase to 4.4 billion by 2025. According to Datareportal, the average time a person spends on social media per day is 2 hours and 24 minutes. At that rate, if someone were to sign up for social media accounts at 16-years-old, they would spend 5.7 years on social media platforms by the time they reach their 70th birthday.

Furthermore, 231 million Americans are active on social media—70 percent of the U.S. population. In other words, social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have become the primary sources of communication in the twenty-first century. Just like television replaced the radio as the main medium of information in the mid-twentieth century, social media reigns supreme today.

This phenomenon was further exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. A Harris Poll conducted in the spring of 2020 found 46 to 51 percent of U.S. adults were using social media at higher rates than pre-pandemic. In addition, U.S. social network ad spending is projected to rise 21.3 percent from the already staggering $40 billion spent in 2020 to around $49 billion in 2021, according to eMarketer.

All of these statistics provide ample evidence that social networks have become so much more than a host for expression, memes, and life updates among friends and family. In today’s world, the social network has become a major sector of the United States economy, influencing corporate successes and failures.

Along with influencing streams of revenue through advertising, we have seen more clearly than ever that social media platforms have the ability to impact and even guide the social discourse. Combining this phenomenon with the highly divisive political and social climate that has plagued the nation in recent years, America has entered the dark era of social media censorship.

Following the unparalleled censorship of the then-president of the United States (and others) in January by Facebook and Twitter, many Americans worry they could be next. Big Tech’s arbitrary clampdown on those they deem guilty of spreading “misinformation” or “disinformation” has also raised the eyebrows of federal and state lawmakers.

The policy solution in Iowa’s House File 633 is leading the pack of countless states that have proposed and are considering legislation that would allow citizens the ability to fight being de-platformed without due process. Many other states are following suit with similar legislation such as Missouri’s House Bill 482 and New Hampshire’s House Bill 133.

Iowa’s legislation states specifically that a dominant social media company shall not affect the ability for a user to create, view, comment or otherwise interact with content that constitutes constitutionally protected speech by liming, blocking or otherwise restricting any content on the respective social media platform.

If a dominant social media platform has, in fact, censored a resident of the Hawkeye State, they have thirty days after the violation to provide the user with an electronic notice that specifically lays out why the content was censored.

After these steps, the Iowa Attorney General shall enforce the aforementioned provisions by assessing a civil penalty for a violation, not to exceed $100,000 for each violation. This figure is paramount when it comes to subject matter jurisdiction. Residents of Iowa as well as residents of most states considering this legislation do not live in the state in which these tech giants are headquartered. This would mean any civil action under this type of legislation is a diversity of citizenship case. Federal district courts have subject matter jurisdiction if the plaintiff asks for at least $75,000 in damages.

House file 633 should also spur a state-based and national debate on the role of Big Tech in our civic dialogue. Ensuring the protection of free expression on social media platforms and allowing action from the state’s attorney general is perhaps the tool policymakers need to give to residents of the Hawkeye State so that the message is clear: robust public debate is sacrosanct and any action or failure to act to ensure a robust debate will be met with hard questions, and if necessary, enabling policies.

Legislators of Iowa should consider solutions that would protect all Americans from undue censorship by a cabal of Big Tech ideologues who wield near-total power over the dissemination of information in today’s social media-dominated environment. More speech, not less speech, is always better in a free society.

 

The following documents provide more information about big tech censorship principles. 

 

Six Principles for State Legislators Seeking to Protect Free Speech on Social Media Platforms

James Taylor President of the Heartland Institute writes six principles to protect free speech in light of social media censorship. Political free speech in the United States is under attack. Tech media giants who own and control virtually all social media platforms available to Americans are working together to silence groups with whom they do not agree. 

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Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this and other topics, visit the Budget & Tax News website, The Heartland Institute’s website, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database.

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Article Tags
Constitutional Reform
Author
Samantha Fillmore is a State Government Relations Manager for The Heartland Institute.
sfillmore@heartland.org @GRHeartland