By Tom Ozimek
States are moving with urgency in seeking to rein in alleged abuses by Big Tech companies, while the federal government is preoccupied with COVID-19 relief and former President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial.
Spurred by various motivations, like fighting censorship, shoring up data privacy protections of constituents, or looking to punish or raise revenue from cash-flush companies they say have grown rich by abusing their dominant market position to the detriment of smaller players, states are ramping up measures to take on Big Tech.
In the face of claims that big tech companies are suppressing conservative voices, Sen. Brian Hughes (R-Texas) is working with Gov. Gregg Abbott and state legislators on a bill that would prevent companies from taking action to moderate user content based on political viewpoints.
Hughes told NTD in an interview that he believes having vigorous and open dialogue on social media is key to healthy political and social discourse.
“Right now we have an oligarchy, we have a small group of people in San Francisco who want to control everyone’s speech. That’s why this is so important,” said Hughes.
The bill would allow citizens legal recourse if they are de-platformed or censored.
“If you’re in Texas and you’re punished for your speech, this gives you the chance to go immediately to court and show the judge what’s happening and get a declaratory judgement and in order for them to put you back online. It should be a quick process and a process available to every Texan,” Hughes said.
It follows a Florida proposal that would seek to penalize social media companies that de-platform candidates during an election. The legislation would fine companies $100,000 a day until the candidate’s access to the platform is restored. Florida would also require companies who promote a candidate to record such endorsements as a political campaign contribution at the state’s election commission.
Nebraska is another state that has recently introduced legislation that that would fine social media companies for violating Nebraska users’ free speech rights. The bill was introduced by state Sen. Curt Friesen, a Republican, who told the Omaha World-Herald that he was motivated by a concern over the power of big tech executives to moderate online speech.
“They arbitrarily decide what’s fit for their platform or not,” he told the outlet. “I don’t think they’ve applied it fairly across the board.”
On the privacy front, Republican lawmakers in North Dakota on Wednesday introduced a bill that would prohibit companies from selling users’ protected data without their consent. Companies would be required to implement an opt-in so that users provide their express consent for the sale of the data, which includes such information as shopping habits, professional history, or socioeconomic status. Violations would be punished by a minimum of $100,000 if they knowingly broke the law.
Virginia is on track to be the second state after California with comprehensive privacy legislation. The state Senate unanimously passed the Consumer Data Protection Act last week, and after the Senate version of the bill is reconciled with the House version, it will head to Gov. Ralph Northam’s desk for a signature. The bill grants consumers the right to access, correct, delete, or obtain a copy of personal data, and to opt out of the processing of personal data used in targeted advertising.
In Maryland, the Democrat-controlled House is expected to override Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s veto of a proposed first-in-the-nation digital advertising tax that would have imposed rates of up to 10 percent on revenue that big tech companies generate by serving up online ads to Marylanders.
But while the Maryland digital tax bill ostensibly targets big tech platforms, much of the burden would fall on Maryland businesses and consumers, according to Jared Walczak of the Tax Foundation, a tax policy nonprofit. The tech industry and business community are widely opposed to the tax.
Federal efforts are also underway to curb the power of Big Tech.
The Justice Department sued Google in October, accusing the company of using anticompetitive tactics, while the Federal Trade Commission sued Facebook in December, alleging the social-media giant abused its market power to stifle competition.
In Congress, the House Antitrust Subcommittee released a 450-page report on Oct. 6 (pdf), following a bipartisan investigation launched in June 2019, claiming a range of anti-competitive practices on the part of four tech titans: Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google.
The subcommittee’s recommendations include increasing enforcement of merger and monopoly laws, enhanced administration of antitrust laws, imposing nondiscrimination requirements, and adopting structural separations.
The report sparked a series of rebuttals from Amazon, Apple, Google, and Facebook.
Amazon, in a blog post, claimed the subcommittee’s conclusions on the alleged monopolistic practices were “fringe notions” and “regulatory spitballing,” while insisting that both small business and customers would suffer as a result of the “misguided interventions” of lawmakers.
Apple, in a statement sent to TechCrunch, said it “vehemently” disagrees with the subcommittee’s recommendations and highlighted its ability to review apps and curate user access to third-party software as bulwarks against potential privacy infringements.
A Facebook spokesperson told TechCrunch that its acquisitions strategy is simply good business that allows the company to “innovate new technologies to deliver more value to people,” while insisting on the presence of a “strongly competitive landscape.”
Google said in a statement that it competes “fairly in a fast-moving and highly competitive industry. We disagree with today’s reports, which feature outdated and inaccurate allegations from commercial rivals about Search and other services.”
Masooma Haq and Samuel Allegri contributed to this report.