Meta’s Facebook and Instagram, as well as all other social media platforms such as Twitter, have just won a major victory in a Texas federal court. A judge there has struck down a state law that would have opened up such companies to huge lawsuits for banning individuals from their respective services.
At issue was a Texas state law that allowed an individual to sue a social media firm for damages should the company ban him from its service over the content of his posts.
The background here is simple. After the 2016 elections in the U.S., the long brewing controversy over the proliferation of fake news on social media like Facebook came to a boil. People were infuriated by the continued money making activities of such companies at what they felt was at the expense of the truth.
Social media companies all make money off of target ads and news feeds. But in the past, they did not make an effort to review the veracity of the content that was being spread. What is more, sites like Facebook use algorithms that cause people to see feeds from the same sources over and over again regardless of the truth.
In response to the public uproar and calls by politicians the world over for greater oversight and government regulations of social media firms, Facebook, Twitter and others began to police themselves. For example, Facebook now blocks content deemed to be racist, or that may incite violence and even puts red flags over seemingly false statements made by its users. This new policy has, of course, caused many people to complain about censorship.
The complaints have come largely from people on the political right who have recently begun founding their own social media services that promise not to censor any content.
But the biggest issue for Facebook, Twitter and all of the rest has been the matter of suspensions and outright bans of individuals over their continued violations of the new content policies set by the social media firms. And, of course, the most notable example of this is former President Donald Trump who has been banned by Twitter after being warned a number of time about his continued false claims about fraud in the 2020 elections.
So, what happened in Texas?
Well, in September the state’s governor signed into law a bill called GB 20 that would limit large companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube from banning users. The law also lets people in the state sue for “wrongful censorship on social media platforms.”
Federal Judge Robert Pitman for the Western District of Texas struck down the law. The judge ruled that social media companies have a right to mediate and to review the content on their platforms.
Judge Pitman issued an order stating, “Social media platforms have a First Amendment right to moderate content disseminated on their platforms. Private companies that use editorial judgment to choose whether to publish content — and, if they do publish content, use editorial judgment to choose what they want to publish — cannot be compelled by the government to publish other content.”
Pitman wrote, in his decision, “This Court is convinced that social media platforms, or at least those covered by HB 20, curate both users and content to convey a message about the type of community the platform seeks to foster and, as such, exercise editorial discretion over their platform’s content. Without editorial discretion, social media platforms could not skew their platforms ideologically, as the State accuses of them of doing.”
“HB 20’s prohibitions on ‘censorship’ and constraints on how social media platforms disseminate content violate the First Amendment,” added Judge Pitman in his decision. “Content moderation and curation will benefit users and the public by reducing harmful content and providing a safe, useful service.”
However, this matter is far from over. Texas can appeal the ruling and the matter may eventually find its way to the Supreme Court. There is also the issue of state vs federal jurisdictions here. Can a state in America, like Texas, regulate a nationwide service like social media in such a way or is such regulation solely the purview of the federal government.
States like Texas could also pass new legislation, but simply word it differently to be in accord with the court’s ruling.
For now, at least, social media firms do not need to concern themselves with lawsuits in the state of Texas over the banning of users.