Both chambers of the Tennessee General Assembly have recently zeroed in restraining Big Tech censorship. The Tennessee House of Representatives has introduced House Bill 859, which—in tandem with companion legislation Senate Bill 695—seeks to establish a civil cause of action for censored users. The bill specifically provides users with a legal remedy if their political or religious speech has been censored, removed, blurred, or obstructed by social media platforms.
In the blink of an eye, the emergence of social media has elevated the national conversation and political discourse to a breadth nearly unimaginable a decade ago. When originally developed, these emerging technologies and mediums promised to significantly enhance freedom of speech.
However, this mass communication network is managed by a handful of powerful tech titans who are protected from liability and operate as monopolies. The consolidation of power amongst these tech oligarchs has now effectively erased the empowerment of millions of Americans and their newfound voices.
According to Statista, the number of social network users worldwide reached 3.6 billion in 2020 and is projected to increase to 4.4 billion by 2025. According to Datareportal, the average time a person spends on social media per day is two hours and 24 minutes. At that rate, if someone were to sign up for social media accounts at the age of 16, they would spend 5.7 years on social media platforms by the time they reach their 70th birthday.
Furthermore, 70 percent of the U.S. population (231.5 million Americans) is active on social media. In other words, social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have become the primary channels of communication in the twenty-first century. Just like television replaced the radio as the main medium of information in the mid-twentieth century, social media reigns supreme today.
This phenomenon was further exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. A Harris Poll conducted in early 2020 found 46 to 51 percent of U.S. adults were using social media at higher rates than they were pre-pandemic. In addition, U.S. social network ad spending is projected to rise 21 percent from the already staggering $40 billion spent in 2020 to $49 billion in 2021, according to eMarketer.
This data provides ample evidence that social networks have become much more than hosts for expression, memes, and life updates among friends and family. In 2022, social media has become a major sector of the United States economy, influencing corporate successes and failures.
Along with influencing streams of revenue through advertising, we have seen more clearly than ever that social media platforms can impact and guide social discourse. Combining this phenomenon with the highly divisive political and social climate that has plagued the nation in recent years, America has entered the era of social media censorship.
According to the Pew Research Center, roughly three-quarters of U.S. adults believe it is likely social media sites intentionally censor opinions and viewpoints that do not fall in line with Big Tech’s preferred ideology and political positions.
Following the unparalleled censorship of the former president of the United States (and others) in January 2021 by Facebook and Twitter, many Americans worry they could be next. Big Tech’s arbitrary clampdown on those they deem guilty of spreading “misinformation” or “disinformation” has also raised the eyebrows of federal and state lawmakers.
The policy solution in Tennessee House Bill 859 is similar to what several states have proposed, which would allow citizens a private cause of action in court if they feel they have been de-platformed without due process. Like its predecessors, HB 859 holds that if Big Tech censors an individual for political or religious speech, then the aforementioned individual would have the ability to file suit against them if he or she did not violate any terms of the user agreement.
For too long, Big Tech companies have been insulated from liability because they claim to merely be platforms. However, these platforms operate in an editorial capacity. HB 859 would lift their liability shield, making them susceptible to suits from citizens who have been unduly and unfairly de-platformed.
Section 230 of the U.S. Code—which defines the role and structure of the FCC— specifically allows state legislatures to enact respective state laws so long as they are consistent with Section 230. Indeed, this is the case with HB 859. Opponents of this legislation would claim that state-based legislation is unconstitutional, which is simply untrue. State-based exemptions exist for legislation such as HB 859.
HB 859 should also spur a state-based and national debate on the role of Big Tech in our civic discourse. Allowing a private cause of action in courts is perhaps the tool policymakers need to give the citizens of Tennessee the message that robust public debate is sacrosanct, and any action or lack thereof to maintain such debate will be met with hard questions—and if necessary, legal repercussions.
As House Bill 859 continues to move through the legislative process, legislators should consider solutions that would protect all Americans from undue censorship by a cabal of Big Tech ideologues who wield near-total power over the dissemination of information in today’s social media-dominated environment. More speech, not less speech, is always better in a free society.
The following document provides more information about big tech censorship principles.
James Taylor, president of The Heartland Institute, writes six principles to protect free speech in light of social media censorship. Political free speech in the United States is under attack. Tech media giants who own and control virtually all social media platforms available to Americans are working together to silence groups with whom they do not agree.
Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this and other topics, visit the Budget & Tax News website, The Heartland Institute’s website, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database.
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