Ever since the Capitol insurrection and Trump’s deplatforming, we’ve seen an onslaught of legislation aimed at preventing social media sites from taking down noxious content. Introduced in states across the country, these bills attempt to prevent perceived “censorship,” threatening to expose online communities to a deluge of garbage, from hate speech to harassment. While some anti-content moderation bills have passed, those that have seem destined to be struck down in court.
But this year’s Worst for Online Communities Award goes to an Iowa bill that managed to surprise us with its uniquely pernicious approach to protecting racism, hate, scams, and misinformation online. If a spoiled apple ruins the bunch, then Iowa’s bill (S.B. 1189) is the rotten apple that ruins a bag of red delicious no one wanted to eat to begin with. S.B. 1189 somehow manages to make a terrible collection of anti-content moderation bills even worse.
To understand what makes Iowa’s bill so rotten, it’s helpful to have context on the broader collection of anti-content moderation legislation that lawmakers have introduced in an attempt to prohibit online platforms from “censorship,” or taking down content, banning users, and downranking posts.
While these bills might appeal to a certain brand of white supremacists and COVID deniers, the vast majority of consumers want to see safer, healthier, online communities. In a national poll commissioned by Chamber of Progress, 67 percent of voters said social media companies should be able to block violent and offensive content. Over 50 percent said they believed social media companies should do more to remove harmful content, not less.
Fortunately for consumers, federal courts have largely overturned the anti-content moderation bills passed to date. Years of precedent hold that the First Amendment grants platforms the right to decide which speech to host. Last year, a federal judge struck down Florida’s anti-content moderation law for exactly that reason. Now, Florida’s anti-content moderation law is pending cert and review by the Supreme Court, as is another law passed by Texas.
To avoid some of the legal pitfalls that made the Texas and Florida laws so obviously unconstitutional, Iowa lawmakers took a different tact. Rather than outright requiring platforms to host speech they don’t want to host, S.B. 1189 imposes massive user-based fines on social media sites unless they change their terms of service to effectively eliminate all content moderation.
The Iowa bill would impose quarterly fines of $7.50 per Iowa user per quarter. For a platform like Facebook, where around 7-in-10 Iowans have an account, that would add up to annual fines north of $80 million.
The only way for a platform to avoid those fines would be to include provisions in their terms of service prohibiting the platform from removing or deplatforming any user, regardless of their history. Neo-Nazis, scammers, and other malicious users could never lose their accounts.
Additionally, the bill prohibits platforms from removing or downranking posts based on ideological, political, philosophical, or religious views. That might sound fair, but the truth is that those “views” can take the form of hateful, harmful content, including antisemitism or incitement of another insurrection. Platforms would have their hands tied, preventing them from cleaning up content to keep their sites safe for all users, including young adults and teens.
Fortunately, Iowa’s legislation would hit the same First Amendment stumbling block that Florida and Texas tripped over. But because of Iowa’s unique approach to anti-content moderation, it’s possible that overturning the bill would take years of litigation if it were to pass.