Ga. lawmakers urged on by Heartland group debate Big Tech ‘censoring’

By: - May 21, 2021 3:00 am

Acworth Republican Rep. Ed Setzler speaks in the House chamber in March. Setzler wants state lawmakers to consider whether the state should take action against alleged censorship from large social media companies. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

Acworth Republican state Rep. Ed Setzler hosted a special called meeting of the House Science and Technology Committee Thursday to consider if the state can or should do anything about technology platforms allegedly censoring users’ free speech.

The hearing was not associated with any specific bill. Setlzer said a discussion is needed to determine whether a bill is necessary.

“Let’s talk about this issue of how First Amendment speech can flourish and what some areas are that we can see nationally that there are problems, let’s look at those, let’s talk about those,” he said. “Let’s do this in a bipartisan way and let’s see if there’s something that needs to be addressed to ensure speech can flourish in our global 21st century marketplace.”

Majorities of both parties believe social media sites censor political viewpoints, according to a Pew survey, with 90% of Republicans and 59% of Democrats saying so.

Lawmakers shared anecdotes of constituents and others who had been banned from platforms or had posts removed for political content, but data suggesting conservatives are targeted online is harder to come by. Facebook’s list of top-performing links is regularly dominated by right-wing commentators.

“No trustworthy large-scale studies have determined that conservative content is being removed for ideological reasons or that searches are being manipulated to favor liberal interests,” according to a February report from researchers at New York University. 

Nevertheless, the idea of Big Tech censoring conservative viewpoints has been a big topic of discussion in conservative circles in recent months. Many point to Facebook and Twitter’s decision in October to temporarily prevent people from seeing a New York Post story with disparaging information about Hunter Biden, son of then-candidate Joe Biden, weeks before the 2020 presidential election. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey later said banning the story was wrong and pledged to instead add context to dubious stories in the future.

The controversy gained more attention after the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol riot when both Facebook and Twitter banned President Donald Trump’s accounts after he made statements the companies said could encourage further violence. Trump has blamed the companies, accusing them without evidence of collaborating with radical leftist elements to silence him.

In response, many conservatives have moved from mainstream sites like Facebook and Twitter to sites like Parler and Gab, which they say allow them to speak without censorship, but those sites have faced their own issues.

Following the Capitol riots, Google and Apple removed the Parler app from their app stores and Amazon announced it would suspend the site from its servers, charging that the site was a public safety threat. Parler is online and back on Apple’s App Store, but the incident gave more ammunition to those who accused tech companies of banning free speech.

Democratic state Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver characterized Thursday’s hearing as a political stunt.

“We’re here, in my personal opinion, because Facebook and Twitter have limited President Trump. This is a political discussion, a partisan discussion,” she said. “I guess I’m just a little unhappy about a platform about free speech that really is about, in my view today, the modern corporate world when they’re asserting their own responsibilities in the private market.”

Setzler disagreed. He framed the issue as bipartisan, arguing that unrestrained tech companies are free to prohibit speech from any ideological group.

“This is way bigger than 2020,” he said. “Sometimes the attention on issues forces legislators to address things that should have been addressed much sooner. I would tell the lady that this committee perhaps should have been having this conversation in 2014, 2015.”

During the hearing, which was held at the state Capitol with some representatives participating remotely, representatives from the conservative Heartland Institute argued that large internet companies like Facebook and Twitter control enough of the digital conversation space that blocking a user effectively prohibits them from participating in political speech.

Heartland Institute President James Taylor compared the sites to the town squares of the colonial era, where people could freely exchange ideas.

“If a private entity is going to make the decision to venture into that space where our unalienable free speech rights are exercised, the primary place where they’re exercised, that entity should be held to a standard of respecting free speech rights, and the fact that they’re a private entity doesn’t lessen the freedom-depriving impacts of censorship,” he said.

Democrats were again skeptical, arguing that private tech platforms have the right to allow whatever speech they want as long as they do not break the law. If enough people are unhappy with the options, the free market will handle it, said Sandy Springs Democratic Rep. Shea Roberts.

“We’ve gone from Myspace to — I don’t even know all the different variations, here’s a new one every day – TikTok, and there are other platforms out there that, if it doesn’t meet your private interests, or what you want to say or you can’t comply with their platform, then why not just go find another platform?” she asked.

Setzler compared the tech companies to dining counter owners during the civil rights era who argued they had the right to refuse Black customers if they wanted to. Setzler said he believes social media companies have a similar obligation to provide their service without discrimination. The challenge before the committee, he said, will be to find a balance between the property rights of the platform owners and the free speech rights of the users.

“It’s for the committee to discuss, what is that balance and how do we strike that?” he said. “How do we land in the right place? That’s what we’re trying to get at, and that’s the question we’ve got to wrestle with, and I don’t know that other states have solved yet.”

The Heartland Institute has testified on more than 20 proposals to limit tech companies’ ability to block posts in statehouses around the country. According to the institute, 70 such bills have been introduced in 33 states this year.

In Iowa, lawmakers have introduced legislation that would ban government contracts or aid for tech companies that censor content. Legislators from states including Florida and Kansas have introduced bills that would require social media companies to give users a month’s notice before banning them, prevent the companies from banning political candidates and open them up to lawsuits from customers who feel mistreated.

Taylor argued that the Georgia Legislature has the authority to pursue similar legislation here, though Setzler said he’s not satisfied with what he has seen in other states.

Democrats were doubtful the Legislature could do anything to control private companies not based in Georgia, citing the companies’ First Amendment rights, but the calculation of Setzler and other Republicans is likely also political, said University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock.

Next year’s legislative session will come before a big election for Georgia. The governor’s mansion will be on the line, as will U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock’s seat, not to mention the state Legislature, and Republicans will likely aim to champion issues that make their base happy.

“It may be one of those symbolic things,” Bullock said. “If you do this, as a Republican, you express your concern about what you see as the unfairness of the way in which Donald Trump has been treated, now you are a friend of Trump.”

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Ross Williams
Ross Williams

Before joining the Georgia Recorder, Ross Williams covered local and state government for the Marietta Daily Journal. His work earned recognition from the Georgia Associated Press Media Editors and the Georgia Press Association, including beat reporting, business writing and non-deadline reporting.