One way to stop cancel culture: cancel the internet altogether


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”.

Comments

  1. IX-103, the ■■■■ing idiot says

    IANAL, but they can’t legally require you to provide service to Texas. From the text of the bill, it actually doesn’t seem to do that. You’re not allowed to discriminate based on geographic location within the state of Texas. So you can block Texas and you won’t be affected by this law.

  2. Susan Montgomery says

    They know it’s unconstitutional. That’s the point. They’re angling for another SCOTUS gimme

  3. wzrd1 says

    Their law is flawed at a fundamental level, private property rights.The sites they’re fucking with are private property, not government property.
    Their law essentially says, anyone who wants to can walk into your livingroom and take a steaming shit on your coffee table and nothing is allowed to be done about it.
    Nope, that’s swift way to get shot. I’m not exceptionally tolerant of shit and my state is a castle doctrine state.

    @3, that’s illegal under their law and not only or exclusively Texans can avail themselves of the law outlawing private property. The only other option is shut down.
    What do you think would happen if FB and Twitter shut down? Google shutting down would literally paralyze the government and industry.

  4. says

    When my son was 5 he was seeing a speech pathologist who ran a chat group for her young clients. I set up the relevant software but overlooked making his settings private so no predators could see him. Sure enough the first posts that came through, thankfully before he got to use it, were nearly all hard core pornography. Under this law blocking the predators would be a criminal offense. Thats the Republicans for you, enabling sexual predators getting access to children. Guess its them and not the Democrats running that pizza parlor in Washington.

  5. jsrtheta says

    Well, with this Supreme Court, the entire Bill of Rights is at risk.

    BUT, no Texas cannot void the First Amendment. The law is so unconstitutional as to be embarrassing. These nimrods know this. They just don’t care. When the law is ruled unconstitutional, they will whine that the Court is filled with gay Democratic commies, and then fundraise off their goal of secession.

    There used to be a tourism ad that Texas ran nationally with the slogan “Texas. Like a whole ‘nother country.” If that were true, I would cheer, because it would mean deportation. Put Cruz on a plane outta Washington and bar his return.

    I hate these people.

  6. Artor says

    The judges and legislators who signed off on this probably received substantial “donations” from the operators of spam mills.

  7. raven says

    This seems to be the Internet Troll Protection act.
    It is like passing a law declaring that fleas, lice, tapeworms, ringworm, ticks, and roundworms are protected endangered species.
    I don’t see the point.

    The internet cannot operate without extensive content moderation.

    True.
    Without content moderation, any website will soon be overrun and destroyed by trolls. I saw it happen to Usenet, AOL, Yahoo, and all the open comment sites of all the news media. I’ve abandoned many websites as the trolls made them useless.

    I would just ignore the Texas law as being obviously unconstitutional and unenforceable. Or put a disclaimer on the site that it is forbidden under Texas law for Texans to view any content on the site. Texas law doesn’t reach beyond Texas.

  8. whheydt says

    I wonder what it would take to push the likes of Parler or “Truth Social” over the “50 million users per day” threshold… Just think of Trump being unable to block/ban/moderate voices critical of him.

  9. robro says

    Don’t worry. This is only a first shot at the law. I’m sure the next set of laws about this matter will be even worse. The Culture War/Evangelical/Reactionary Right are on a role. They are convinced they can’t be beat, and if they are beat, they’ll start a rebellion.

  10. Ridana says

    Florida’s trying this too. District courts already blocked both laws, but the three-idiot panel of the 5th Circuit overruled that (the FL case in the 11th hasn’t been decided yet) and reinstated the TX law. And I do mean idiots. One of the judges insisted that Twitter was not a website but an ISP. Another didn’t understand how or why Twitter and Facebook are different from telephone service.

    Republican judges are just like Republican legislators and executives, who value ignorance and will lie like they breathe if they can twist words to achieve their goals, which in this case is the end of Section 230 protections. They are all just a pack of dogs chasing a bus, who lack the imagination to see what will inevitably happen when they catch it. They can only think about that exquisite joy they’ll feel in the half second before they actually bite into the spinning tire.

  11. lumipuna says

    I’d expect corporate lawyers to argue that blocking service to Texas residents isn’t “censoring” them because then said residents won’t be sending any content to be reviewed by the moderators in the first place.

  12. David Richardson says

    I live in a small town in south-east Sweden (70,000 inhabitants). In the first week of the Russian invasion of Ukraine our council e-mail servers were targeted with mails from Russia and Belarus … 150 million of them. Fortunately, there were defences up and running. This was happening all over Sweden. It seems to me that when the word gets around, the web servers in Texas are going to get inundated with DDOS attacks that it will be illegal to defend yourself against.

  13. unclefrogy says

    ignorance, fear and superstition fueled resentment and authoritarian ambition the soul of the conservative movement.
    welcome to the new dark ages.

  14. Walter Solomon says

    So, Texas wants to make the Internet even worse? Any chance we can give Tejas back to Mexico?

  15. says

    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.”

    You can, and your right to do so is constitutionally protected. The case you’re looking for is Hurley v Irish-American Gay Group of Boston.

    A bunch of homophobes ran the StPatrick’s Day parade in Boston back in the 90s (and, I’m sure, before that). They didn’t want to get any gay in their parade or parade in the gay b/c they were for celebrating TRADITIONAL Irish values, like getting stone-stupid drunk, falling overboard from your fishing boat before dawn and drowning, I would guess.

    Anyway they told queers that they could march in the parade but only if they were in no way identifiable as queer people, b/c the march was about Irishness not about queerness.

    SCOTUS ruled that the organizers paid the money and did the organizing and it was their march. They were free to decide on the message of their march and to limit participation or expression that — in their own opinion — negatively affected the message that they wanted to send.

    The ruling got a mixed reception at the time, but it was the right one: the government cannot force you to platform someone you don’t like. And it’s not a constitutional right if it only applies to favored groups. So the KKK can hold a march and exclude people from participating if they don’t support actively support the KKK’s message during the march. But at the same time, BLM can hold a march and can actively exclude the KKK.

    FtB as a website exists to express a set of messages that serve the central organizing purpose of the site, much like a parade exists solely to express a message or set of messages. We get to exclude anyone who wishes to use the site to express a message that we feel undermines our goals.

    That’s Hurley to a T.

    What’s more, if our central organizing message was “lifting up the voices of Laredo, Texas drag performers” we could even exclude drag performers from Dallas, in other words, exclude by geography, and it would be protected. It’s not exactly Hurley in that case, but yeah: the extension from a legal standpoint is both small and reasonable, and if there’s not a case on that exact point already, then I would bet the courts would have no trouble extending Hurley that far.

    Texas is pissing up a constitutional rope.

  16. klatu says

    Legality aside, isn’t this bound to backfire? If they cannot legally filter out spam after this legislation passes, then any comment section (or any user-interactive part) on any Texas-based service is going to be swamped with spambots, shilling for the kind of garbage not even republicans want.

    In fact, this would be my suggestion for USians. Go to http://www.I-have-self-worth-problems-and-I-am-probably-a-racist.gov and spam the DDOS out of it with fake applications.

  17. whheydt says

    Re: klatu @ #20…
    It is–cleverly–written. It only applies to platforms that have at least 50 million users per day. There aren’t many of those, and the best known ones (and possibly the only ones) are Twitter and Facebook. So it’s really targeted at those two companies.

    I suppose someone could start a case moving to the effect that the 50 million user threshold is unreasonable and that it needs to be either zero or some other, relatively low, number so that the right-wing platforms have to live with it as well.

  18. birgerjohansson says

    I am currently reading Neal Stephenson’s “Fall, or Dodge In Hell” about the future where internet is completely Fox News-ified, the southern half of rural USA is generally referred to as ‘Ameristan’ where it is unsafe to drive around with licence plates (a sign you are backing the federal government).
    After an Internet hoax claiming the town Moab was blown up by a nuke, truthers claim it really happened, and the rednecks have patches saying “Remember Moab”.
    Dregs like the governors of Texas and Florida are making every effort to make this novel come true.

  19. nomdeplume says

    “Cancel culture” is the ultimate Right Wing projection. ALL of the canceling has always been to stop left wing ideas. And this “woke” nonsense is more of the same. “Woke” simply means left wing thought. We are heading back to a time when the only “freedom of speech” was exercised by the King and his barons and by the church hierarchy.

  20. says

    From the cited article:

    The law applies to “social media platforms” that have more than 50 million US monthly average users …, and limits it to websites where the primary purpose is users posting content to the site, not ones where things like comments and such are a secondary feature.

    So it sounds like any blogger could easily get around this law merely by saying their own OPs are the main purpose of their blogs, and other people’s opinions are “secondary” and have no bearing on what the bloggers themselves intend to say. If PZ says he’s only doing this to broadcast HIS opinions, and other people’s comments matter far less to him than his own, how would any litigant prove otherwise in any court?

  21. says

    If this is a Texas law, then: a) it doesn’t apply outside of Texas; and b) a blog or ISP or whatever outside of Texas can indeed block Texas users and not be penalized under Texas law, because the blog or ISP or whatever is not in Texas. QEDuh.

  22. wajim says

    Hey you guys above are smart and I agree with just about everything, but has anyone (even absent the looming TX law) simply thought about abandoning social media (if not the net itself)? Like PZ, an older guy who has never wanted anything to do with FB, Twitter, or any of their corporate acquisitions. Why, I wonder, seemingly thoughtful people can think FB or Instagram, or what have you, is worth the enormous social and political ( and, and . . .) costs to the country. What was that Simpson’s jingle? Just Don’t Look . . . Maybe Paul Anna has it right

  23. whheydt says

    Re: wajim @ #27…
    I do not have a Facebook account. I do not have a Twitter account. I occasionally–very occasionally–look at a specific Twitter account when an MMORPG I play is down longer than expected as they post updates there.

    So…no. I don’t use the services generally referred to as “social media”.

  24. numerobis says

    wajim: then I don’t get a lot of communications from clubs, political parties, public service announcements from local government, etc. Or baby photos.

  25. says

    Got it wrong on the first line. What is the legal definition of “Social Media Platform”? You need to define that before you even start. Is Craig’s List a social media platform? How about letters to the editor in the local paper? What about the church bulletin? They want to play this game I can make some mischief.

  26. says

    wajim: I generally agree with you, but our refusal to look at “social media” won’t stop bigots, demagogues and con-artists from using it to get their lies out to their rabid followers as fast as possible with nothing slowing any of it down.

    Also, the last time I asked the same question you did, I was reminded that people were also able to use Twitter to get proof of violent police misconduct out quickly. So it can be used for good, at least sometimes.

  27. says

    As always with rightwingnuts, they want “just us”, not “justice”, why I call them hypochristians.

    If they get their way and use legal force to put their white xian supremacy on and dominate every media, they’ll immediately want to ban those they disagree with and say “that’s not freeze peach because it doesn’t agree with the majority of posts!” (which is why they spam platforms in bulk).

    < s> And, of course, they think companies should be forced to allow racial slurs, rape threats and death threats, which is also “freeze peach”. But not phrases like “white trash” which youtube and many others now ban. < /s> I’m not kidding. You wouldn’t believe how many words and phrases are now banned in youtube’s comments. Not just “white trash” or profanity, but even accurate words. On a video about a republican arrested for molesting children, I found that the word pedophile was being filtered.

  28. says

    Starting to look like spamming Epicurus quotes about the non-believability of gods would be protected. Meta’s got lists of christians. I wonder how many impressions could be bought for $10k.

    For that matter, an ad saying “you’ve got to be an idiot to believe anything Trump says” would be protected political speech. Remember, Russians supposedly only spent $175k on facebook in 2016. I suppose if your propaganda is clickbaity enough it can pay for itself.

    The filtering software is offensively bad. I knew some glassblowers whose group was shut down because of someone mentioning “glory hole”

  29. DanDare says

    So the social media companies should stop providing service in texas. Done.

  30. PaulBC says

    Intransitive@32 “White trash” is offensive because it suggests that non-white people are trash by default. At least that is how I always hear it: “Trash despite being white.” So… well I’m not going to weigh in on banning it but I don’t use it. Of course, it’s likely that the targets of this insult miss the subtlety and just don’t like being called “trash.”

    I will occasionally say “hillbilly”, “hick”, or “yokel” and I am not proud of it and should stop. JD Vance (a wealthy and perhaps soon to be powerful individual) wears the first term proudly and it was once a popular music genre so maybe it’s not so important. But there are just better ways to communicate. When I say something offensive, I prefer it to be intentional, not casual.

  31. Owlmirror says

    [Neal Stephenson’s “Fall, or Dodge In Hell” ]

    where it is unsafe to drive around with licence plates (a sign you are backing the federal government)

    ??? Most license plates are issued by state-level organizations. Do state governments simply no longer care about who drives what where and how?

    After an Internet hoax claiming the town Moab was blown up by a nuke, truthers claim it really happened, and the rednecks have patches saying “Remember Moab”.

    Have none driven there to see the nonexistent crater? Or is interstate travel that difficult?

    I have to wonder if “Moab” was chosen because of the weapon with the acronym M.O.A.B., which, ironically, uses conventional explosives, not nuclear explosives.

  32. Owlmirror says

    “White trash” is offensive because it suggests that non-white people are trash by default.

    But it’s also a bigoted insult that targets people because of poverty and low education. Just because a bigoted insult is about class rather than race (or gender, or sexuality, or religion) doesn’t mean it’s not a bigoted insult.

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