Social media companies should make public their policies for removing problematic content and explain in detail how and when they remove it, under a proposal being considered by California lawmakers who accuse online gossip of encouraging violence and to undermine democracy.
The bipartisan measure was stalled last year over free speech concerns, but Democrat Congressman Jesse Gabriel said on Tuesday he hoped to revive his bill by adding amendments he said would make it clear that lawmakers do not intend to censor or regulate content.
“We think we’ve found a way to thread that needle,” Gabriel said at a news conference promoting what he called one-of-a-kind legislation. “We don’t tell you what to do – but tell the decision makers and tell the public what you are doing.”
“There is nothing in this bill that compels companies to censor speech,” he added. “There is nothing that requires them to silence certain voices or amplify other content. It just forces them to be honest and transparent about when they amplify certain voices and when they silence others. “
Digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit promoting free speech online, was among those opposing the bill on free speech grounds. But the group said it could not say whether Gabriel had addressed those concerns until he amended his bill.
The proposal made its way through the state Assembly more than a year ago on a 64-1 vote, then stopped at the Senate Judiciary Committee. He faces a crucial hearing in that committee next week, days before the deadline for tabling bills before the full Senate.
The California Chamber of Commerce opposed the bill along with trade groups including the Consumer Technology Association, Internet Association, Internet Coalition, Netchoice and TechNet.
The bill requires such full disclosure that it would provide “bad actors with roadmaps to circumvent our protections,” a coalition of opponents of lawmakers has said. Its requirement for detailed quarterly reports to the state attorney general is “impractical and unreasonable,” even with proposed amendments, the coalition said.
And the enforcement authorized by the bill is “onerous and problematic,” subjecting companies to potential civil penalties and investigation into filing a report. The potential for lawsuits would be counterproductive, the groups said, and could “undermine ongoing efforts to protect users from harmful content online.”
Companies would be required to say whether their policies cover different categories of online content and, if so, how they apply those policies in each category, how quickly and how often, all broken down by how it has been shared – for example by text, videos or images. .
Categories would include hateful or racist speech; extremism or radicalization; disinformation or misinformation; harassment; and foreign policy interference. They should say how many items were reported, how many were acted upon, and how often those items were viewed and shared.
“Consumers – all of us as we watch our social media feeds – deserve to know how social media amplifies and propagates hate, misinformation and disinformation, and sadly even foments violence in our society,” the senator said. Democrat Richard Pan, who leads the California Asian & Pacific Islander Legislative Caucus which has seen harassment grow during the coronavirus pandemic.
“They know what their algorithms are doing. We don’t know,” Pan added. “We need to know what’s going on inside that black box. We need to know what those billions of dollars they’ve invested in researching our way of thinking are actually driving the decisions they make.”
Gabriel said that as the headquarters of many social media companies, “California has a special obligation and a special opportunity to lead” in a time when federal politicians “can’t even agree on the day of the week”.
Advocates and the companies themselves agree that anything California does will become a model for the rest of the nation, like many of its other policies, Gabriel said.
The bill is one of several dealing with social media that are being considered by the Legislative Assembly this year. Among them is one that would allow parents to sue social media platforms alleging harm to children who have become addicted to online content. Another would require online businesses to meet certain standards if they sell to children.
Another would allow Californians targeted by violent social media posts to seek a court order to have the posts removed.