Tech industry files emergency application to block controversial Texas social media law

Trade industry groups representing tech giants, such as Google and Facebook, have filed an emergency application with the Supreme Court to block HB 20. That's the controversial law Texan law that bars social media websites from removing or restricting content based on "the viewpoint of the user or another person." It also allows users to sue large platforms with more than than 50 million active monthly users if they believe they were banned for their political views. As The Washington Post reports, it reflects Republicans' claims that they're being being censored by "Big Tech."

A federal judge blocked HB 20 from being implemented last year, but the 5th US Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that decision recently. The panel of judges agreed with the state of Texas that social networks are "modern-day public squares," which means they're banned from censoring certain viewpoints. One of the judges also said that social networks aren't websites but "internet providers" instead. The panel allowed the law to take effect while its merits are still being litigated in lower court. 

NetChoice and the Computer and Communications Industry Association (CCIA), the groups representing the tech industry, have maintained that the law is an attack on the First Amendment and have previously questioned its constitutionality. In their emergency application, they said HB 20 is an "unprecedented assault on the editorial discretion of private websites… that would fundamentally transform their business models and services." 

They explained that under the law, platforms would have no choice but to allow the dissemination of "all sorts of objectionable viewpoints," such as Russian propaganda justifying the invasion of Ukraine, posts supporting neo-Nazis, KKKs and Holocaust deniers, as well as posts encouraging dangerous behavior, such as disordered eating. "The Fifth Circuit has yet to offer any explanation why the District Court’s thorough opinion was wrong," they wrote in their application (PDF).

NetChoice and CCIA also argue that by allowing the law to be enforced, it could influence and interfere with the decision of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. The Atlanta-based appeals court will decide the fate of a similar law in Florida that was initially blocked by a federal judge for violating Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

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Texas law that allows users to sue social networks for censorship is now in effect

The 5th US Circuit Court of Appeals has paused the temporary injunction on controversial law HB 20, which another court blocked from taking effect last year. As Houston Public Media notes, the state introduced HB 20 last year after high-profile conservatives, including Donald Trump, were blocked on social media websites. Under the law, users will be able to sue large social media platforms with more than 50 million active monthly users such as Facebook and Twitter if they believe they were banned for their political views. HB 20 also prohibits social networks from removing or restricting content based on “the viewpoint of the user or another person.” Trade industry groups NetChoice and the Computer and Communications Industry Association (CCIA) managed to secure an injunction against the law last year. They argued that HB 20 would lead to the spread of misinformation and hate speech on social networks and that it also violates the websites' First Amendment rights. The federal judge overseeing the case agreed that social networks have the right to moderate content under the First Amendment and also said that parts of the law are “prohibitively vague.”In a hearing for the appeal filed by Texas, the state's lawyers argued that social media platforms are “modern-day public squares.” That means they can be required to host content that they deem objectionable and are banned from censoring certain viewpoints. The 5th Circuit judges sided with Texas, with one even telling the trade groups during the hearing that social networks like Twitter are not websites but “internet providers” instead.NetChoice counsel Chris Marchese called HB 20 “an assault on the First Amendment” and “constitutionally rotten from top to bottom” on Twitter. The trade groups plan to appeal immediately, but for now, HB 20 is fully in effect. As promised, our full statement. HB 20 is an assault on the First Amendment, and it's constitutionally rotten from top to bottom. So of course we're going to appeal today's unprecedented, unexplained, and unfortunate order by a split 2-1 panel. https://t.co/hChUkISHtOpic.twitter.com/UwdIVIHIn5— Chris Marchese (@ChrisMarchese9) May 11, 2022A federal court blocked a similar law in Florida last year after the judge ruled that it violates Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act that shields online platforms from liability for what their users' post. Florida also appealed that decision, which will be decided by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Federal judge blocks Florida's social media 'deplatforming' law

Florida's social media 'deplatforming' law that would've taken effect on Thursday has been temporarily blocked by a federal court. US District Judge Robert Hinkle has granted a preliminary injunction to stop “the parts of the legislation that are pre-empted or violate the First Amendment” from being enforced, according to AP and The New York Times. The law would give the state the right to fine social media companies like Facebook up to $250,000 a day if they ban or remove the account of a statewide political candidate. They could also be fined up to $25,000 a day for banning a local office candidate.Florida Governor Ron DeSantis proposed the law shortly after Facebook, Instagram and Twitter banned former President Donald Trump. Republican politicians have long accused mainstream social media platforms of having an anti-conservative bias. After the bill successfully went through Florida's legislative house and senate, DeSantis signed it into law back in May. While the law targets the world's biggest social networks, the authors made sure Disney+ won't get caught up in it by making an exemption for theme park owners. As AP notes, the Walt Disney World located outside Orlando is one of the state's biggest employers. The entities that filed the lawsuit to challenge the legislation were NetChoice and the Computer & Communications Industry Association — lobbying groups that represent Facebook, Google and other tech giants. Judge Hinkle explained that the plaintiffs would likely win the lawsuit on their claim that the new law violates the First Amendment if the case went to trial.According to Hinkle:”The legislation compels providers to host speech that violates their standards — speech they otherwise would not host — and forbids providers from speaking as they otherwise would…The legislation now at issue was an effort to rein in social-media providers deemed too large and too liberal. Balancing the exchange of ideas among private speakers is not a legitimate governmental interest.”

Federal judge dismisses Trump's lawsuit against Twitter

San Francisco federal district court Judge James Donato has tossed the lawsuit Donald Trump filed against Twitter last year in a bid to get his account back. The social network permanently suspended the former president's account after his supporters stormed the Capitol in January 2021. In the company's announcement, Twitter cited two of his tweets in particular that it believes were “highly likely to encourage and inspire people to replicate the criminal acts that took place at the US Capitol” on January 6th last year.Trump filed a lawsuit in October, seeking a preliminary injunction on the ban and arguing that it violates his First Amendment rights. Donato disagreed and noted in his ruling that Twitter is a private company. “The First Amendment applies only to governmental abridgements of speech,” he explained, “and not to alleged abridgements by private companies.” The judge also rejected the notion that the social network had acted as a government entity after being pressured by Trump's opponents and had thereby violated the First Amendment when it banned the former President. In his lawsuit, Trump asked the judge to rule the federal Communications Decency Act, which states that online service providers such as Twitter can't be held liable for content posted by users, as unconstitutional. The judge shot down that claim, as well, and ruled that the former President didn't have legal standing to challenge Section 230 of CDA. Trump is a known critic of Section 230 and proposed to limit the protections social media platforms enjoy under it during his term.The former President was an avid Twitter user before his suspension and formed his own social network called Truth Social after he was banned. Just recently, he told CNBC that he won't be going back to Twitter even if Elon Musk reverses his suspension and will stay on Truth Social instead. According to a recent report by the Daily Beast, Truth Social has 513,000 daily active users compared to Twitter's 217 million.

Twitter asks judge to throw out Trump's lawsuit over ban

It won't surprise you to hear Twitter is fighting former President Trump's lawsuit over his ban. Bloombergreports Twitter has asked a judge to dismiss the suit as it allegedly misinterprets and threatens the company's First Amendment free speech rights. The social network noted it was a private company that isn't obligated to host speech it doesn't like, and that Trump repeatedly violated the rules he agreed to when he chose to use the service. A forced ban reversal would challenge “bedrock principles of constitutional law,” Twitter said.Moreover, Twitter argued its editorial choices related to basic public concerns, including threats to a peaceful White House transition as well as statements that could foster “further violence.” The company merely flagged Trump's tweets as misleading in the run-up to the January 6th Capitol assault, but banned him after he continued.Lead attorney John Coale has contended Twitter is a “state actor” as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act supposedly equates to a subsidy that forces it to honor the First Amendment like the government does. Biden's Justice Department has objected to this interpretation in a court filing, however, stating that Section 230 is only meant to protect against liability, not regulate the speech of officials like the ex-President.Trump isn't waiting for a return to Twitter, Facebook and other social networks. He recently launched Truth Social in a bid to enable himself and other conservatives who've felt silenced by tech companies. If Twitter succeeds in its dismissal request, though, Trump won't have much of a choice but to give up his once-preferred platform.

Google pauses all ad sales in Russia

Google has stopped selling ads in Russia completely, according to Reuters. The tech giant's decision applies to YouTube, search and outside publishing partners, expanding the more limited ad bans it implemented since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began. “In light of the extraordinary circumstances, we're pausing Google ads in Russia,” the company told the news organization in a statement. “The situation is evolving quickly, and we will continue to share updates when appropriate.”The tech giant blocked RT and other Russian channels from generating ad revenue on YouTube in late February before barring Russian state media from being able to monetize their content across its platforms. It had also prohibited all kinds of ads that seek to take advantage of the situation, unless they're anti-war advertisements.Google is far from the only tech company that has implemented ad-related changes across the region. Twitter had quickly paused ads and recommendations in Russia and Ukraine after the invasion began “to ensure critical public safety information is elevated and ads don't detract from it.” Facebook blocked Russian state media from running ads on its platform after the country's authorities partially restricted access to the social network. More recently, it blocked access to RT and Sputnik within the EU and Ukraine before demoting all Russian state media on its website around the world. Microsoft banned RT and Sputnik from its ad platform, as well, and pulled their news apps from its store. As The New York Times notes, Google has been very careful with its decisions involving Russia. It has over 100 employees in the country, and Russian authorities previously threatened to prosecute individuals if their employers don't abide by their rules. Google's decision to ban all ad sales in the country comes shortly after Russian communications watchdog Roskomnadzor demanded the takedown of YouTube video ads it says are spreading “false political information” about Ukraine. According to a Wall Street Journal report, Roskomnadzor is accusing YouTube of running “advertising campaigns to misinform the Russian audience” and are “aimed at creating a distorted perception of current events.” The regulator didn't say whether it would limit YouTube in Russia if Google doesn't comply, but Russian authorities have been blocking websites that provide information contradicting their country's official narrative about the invasion. In addition to restricting access to Facebook within the country, the Russian government also limited people's access to Twitter and previously threatened to block Wikipedia.

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