Appeals Court Revives Texas Law Targeting Social Media Companies

Texas law, which bans large social media companies from removing political speech, became the first of its kind to be enacted on Wednesday, raising complex questions for major web platforms about how to comply with the rules.

The law, which applies to social media platforms with 50 million or more monthly active users in the United States, was passed last year by lawmakers who raised issues with sites such as Facebook and Twitter over the removal of conservative publishers and personality posts. . The law makes it possible for users or the state’s attorney general to sue on an online platform that removes posts because they express a particular point of view.

In a brief order Wednesday, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, located in New Orleans, 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 may now sue when they decide to remove content for violating their rules.

The surprise ruling comes amid widespread debate in Washington, the State House and foreign capitals over how to balance free expression with online security. Some members of Congress have proposed making online platforms accountable when they spread discriminatory advertisements or misinformation about public health. The European Union signed an agreement last month aimed at fighting misinformation and increasing transparency around how social media companies operate.

But conservatives say the platform removes too much rather than too little content. Many of them were pleased with Elon Musk’s recent acquisition of Twitter as he promised lighter bans on speech. While on the site President Donald J. Trump imposed the ban after January. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, Republicans in the State House proposed legislation to regulate how companies enforce their policies.

“My office has won another major victory against BIG TECH,” Texas Attorney General and Republican Ken Pexton said in a tweet after the law was restored. Planned for Mr. The attorney general did not give details of how he planned to enforce the law.

Florida passed a bill last year that penalized companies if they deleted the accounts of some political candidates, but a federal judge prevented it from taking effect after tech industry groups sued. The Texas bill takes a slightly different approach, stating that the platform cannot “censor a user’s ability to receive a user’s, user’s expression or another person’s expression” based on “user or other person’s point of view.”

The law does not prohibit the platform from removing content when it is notified by organizations tracking online sexual exploitation of children or when it includes “specific threats of violence” against someone based on a person’s gender or other protected qualities. The law also includes provisions that require online platforms to be transparent about their moderation policies.

When the Texas governor signed the state bill in September, the tech industry claimed to have blocked it. He argued that the ban placed on the platform violated their own right to free speech to remove anything they found offensive.

The United States District Court for the Western District of Texas upheld the law in December, saying it violated the Constitution. When the appellate court overturned the district court’s decision Wednesday, it did not consider the merits of the law.

“We are weighing our options and plan to appeal the order immediately,” said Carl Sabo, vice president of NetChoice, a group funded by companies including Google, Meta and Twitter that claimed to block the law. We are living. “

A Facebook and Twitter spokesman declined to comment on their plans.

Jamil Jaffer, executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, who filed briefings opposing the law in Texas and Florida, said it was “really absurd” that the appellate court bought Texas’ argument that the law was valid. .

“To accept that principle is to give the government broad powers to distort or manipulate online discourse,” he said.

Critics of the law say they believe it will bind the platform: leave out obscure information and racist content or face lawsuits across Texas. Former Google lawyer Daphne Keller, who is now director of the Platform Regulation Program at Stanford University’s Cyber ​​Policy Center, said compliance with the law by the company would “drastically change the service they offer.”

Ms. Keller said companies could consider restricting access to their websites in Texas. But it is unclear whether the move itself violates the law.

“If you’re a company, I’m sure you’re thinking, ‘Can we do that?'” She said. “Then the question is how he will play in the eyes of the people.”

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