Texas is screwing the rest of the country, again. They passed a law against internet “censorship” that is nothing but ludicrous aggravation about certain people (e.g., Donald Trump) getting moderated and banned, so the conservatives are pushing through a law that will have the trolls and spammers dancing in the streets.
CENSORSHIP PROHIBITED. (a) A social media platform may not censor a user, a user’s expression, or a user’s ability to receive the expression of another person based on:
(1) the viewpoint of the user or another person;
(2) the viewpoint represented in the user’s expression or another person’s expression; or
(3) a user’s geographic location in this state or any part of this state.
(b) This section applies regardless of whether the viewpoint is expressed on a social media platform or through any other medium.
I am not a lawyer, but even I can see problems here. I’ll let someone else explain it.
So, let’s break this down. It says that a website cannot “censor” (by which it clearly means moderate) based on the user’s viewpoint or geographic location. And it applies even if that viewpoint doesn’t occur on the website.
What does that mean in practice? First, even if there is a good and justifiable reason for moderating the content — say it’s spam or harassment or inciting violence — that really doesn’t matter. The user can simply claim that it’s because of their viewpoints — even those expressed elsewhere — and force the company to fight it out in court. This is every spammer’s dream. Spammers would love to be able to force websites to accept their spam. And this law basically says that if you remove spam, the spammer can take you to court.
Indeed, nearly all of the moderation that websites like Twitter and Facebook do are, contrary to the opinion of ignorant ranters, not because of any “viewpoint” but because they’re breaking actual rules around harassment, abuse, spam, or the like.
While the law does say that a site must clearly post its acceptable use policy, so that supporters of this law can flat out lie and claim that a site can still moderate as long as it follows its policies, that’s not true. Because, again, all any aggrieved user has to do is to claim the real reason is due to viewpoint discrimination, and the litigation is on.
And let me tell you something about aggrieved users: they always insist that any moderation, no matter how reasonable, is because of their viewpoint. Always. And this is especially true of malicious actors and trolls, who are in the game of trolling just to annoy in the first place. If they can take that up a notch and drag companies into court as well? I mean, the only thing stopping them will be the cost, but you already know that a cottage industry is going to pop up of lawyers who will file these cases. I wouldn’t even be surprised if cases start getting filed today.
Great. I know I posted a comment policy for this little ol’ site, but it’s buried in the archives somewhere. Guess I’ll have to dig it and make it more prominent.
I have another grievance with this law, though. I should be able to block people on the basis of their viewpoint! If someone starts commenting about how women don’t deserve to be regarded as equals of men, for example, I ought to be able to say, “No, we’re not going to tolerate that nonsense here. Bye.” The law doesn’t apply to places like Freethoughtblogs — it sets a cap, where you have to have over 50 million monthly users for it to go into effect — so I’m not about to get sued by the hundreds of people on my blocklist, but in general, a lot of the big social media sites are going to become unusable if all the trolls are set free, and you know the authors of the bill would love to go after every website left of center.
Also bad: they want to liberate spammers.
And, that’s not all. Remember last week when I was joking about how Republicans wanted to make sure your inboxes were filled with spam? I had forgotten about the provision in this law that makes a lot of spam filtering a violation of the law. I only wish I was joking. For unclear reasons, the law also amends Texas’ existing anti-spam law. It added (and it’s already live in the law) a section saying the following:
Sec. 321.054. IMPEDING ELECTRONIC MAIL MESSAGES PROHIBITED. An electronic mail service provider may not intentionally impede the transmission of another person’s electronic mail message based on the content of the message unless:
(1) the provider is authorized to block the transmission under Section 321.114 or other applicable state or federal law; or
(2) the provider has a good faith, reasonable belief that the message contains malicious computer code, obscene material, material depicting sexual conduct, or material that violates other law.
So that literally says the only reasons you can “impede” email is if it contains malicious code, obscene material, sexual content, or violates other laws. Now the reference to 321.114 alleviates some of this, since that section gives services (I kid you not) “qualified immunity” for blocking certain commercial email messages, but only with certain conditions, including enabling a dispute resolution process for spammers.
There are many more problems with this law, but I am perplexed at how anyone could possibly think this is either workable or Constitutional. It’s neither. The only proper thing to do would be to shut down in Texas, but again the law treats that as a violation itself. What an utter monstrosity.
Back in the old days, when Pharyngula was run off a Macintosh in my lab and I had full access to every nut and bolt in the server software, I had all kinds of protections in place to automatically block spammers. A few times, as an experiment, I’d turn off the filters and was astonished at how many bad actors were constantly probing, trying to hack in or flood the system with spam — hundreds per second. And I was just a tiny little PowerMac sitting in a little lab somewhere.
I just checked my email spam folder, which gets purged every week: 830 messages trying to sell me CBD Gummies, extended warranties, real estate, lawn care products, and oh, cool, an offer to be named a joint author on a paper to be submitted to an Indian research journal for only a few hundred dollars.
The internet cannot operate without extensive content moderation. The judges and legislators who signed off on this law are clearly incompetent and unaware, and are probably a gang of Republicans terrified of “cancel culture”.