Texas is well known for many things — BBQ, Buc-ee’s, and a burgeoning tech industry. Our state is home to more than 17,600 technology firms that employ nearly 204,000 workers, and last year the Austin-Round Rock metro area and Dallas claimed the top two spots as the strongest hubs for tech jobs in the country. Threatening this ecosystem of technological innovation, however, is Texas House Bill 20. This bill, which is being considered before the House, would run counter to its intended purpose by targeting the very services that make online discourse and debate possible, violate internet companies’ First Amendment protections, and create burdensome reporting requirements that will not only weigh down dozens of platforms impacted by the law, but allow bad actors an inside look at how online services keep us safe.
Our online world has grown into a space where the average person has a soapbox to broadcast to the largest audience in history. Before internet platforms, most Americans were limited to writing a letter to the editor or publishing a book to share opinions with a large population. But today, the number of people able to utilize social media continues to climb, with a remarkable increase of more than half a billion users in just the last 12 months. These modern platforms have allowed voices from the left and right to flourish, with the ascension of personalities and outlets such as Ben Shapiro, Candace Owens, Dan Rather, NPR, and Fox News, which regularly sit atop “Facebook’s Top 10.” And while Texas HB 20 aims to increase discourse online, it would violate companies’ First Amendment rights and undercut the very foundation of internet platforms that makes them an ideal place for debate.
It is well established that the private companies covered by House Bill 20 are protected by the First Amendment when making content moderation decisions. The same way a restaurant or other private business can enforce a “no shoes, no shirt, no service” policy, a social media company can decide what content to host on their site. Moreover, the ability to moderate content is the very thing that allows internet platforms to maintain welcoming communities that the vast majority of people want to join. You’re just as unlikely to frequent a dining establishment where patrons are half clothed as you are to join a website where dangerous and illicit content runs rampant. Without this freedom, internet platforms that turn a blind eye to harmful content could be treated more favorably than sites that take action to protect their users. While HB 20 seeks to create a more open and enjoyable space online for discussion, it would have the opposite effect, instead flooding platforms with malign content and hamstringing companies with frivolous lawsuits if they attempt to regulate it.
Along with the tsunami of lawsuits we can expect to accompany HB 20, this legislation carries burdensome disclosure requirements that would force platforms to share their moderation practices and algorithms. This would give criminals the keys to the castle by allowing them an inside look at how they can circumvent safety standards and evade machine learning moderators to post harmful or illegal content. Moderating content is already a difficult feat which requires a multi-pronged approach from platforms, and services constantly evolve their practices to meet new challenges. The requirements in House Bill 20 could stop platforms from updating their policies proactively, or lead them to adopt dense, overarching rules that would significantly limit what users can share online.
House Bill 20 is bad policy, and ultimately, unconstitutional. As private companies, social media platforms have the right to choose what content they host under the First Amendment. That’s why a similar law in Florida was recently blocked by the courts. HB 20 has the potential to hamper Texas’ growing tech sector while simultaneously harming consumers’ online experiences. The companies leading the internet economy are proud to operate in Texas and urge lawmakers to oppose HB 20 in order to keep our online platforms safe and prosperous.
James Hines is the Director of State Government Affairs for the Southern Region at Internet Association, a trade organization representing over 40 of the world’s leading internet companies. Internet Association’s mission is to foster innovation, promote economic growth, and empower people through the free and open internet.