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Tech Industry Groups Argue Against Texas Social Media Law

Two large tech industry groups want to block the state’s new social media law, which allows users to sue companies if they are blocked or their posts are removed on any social media platform.

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(TNS) — Lawyers for two large tech industry groups appeared Monday in federal court in Austin to argue that Texas' new social media law — inspired by Republican complaints that conservatives are ill-treated on Twitter, Facebook and other large platforms — should be blocked as unconstitutional.

Known as House Bill 20, the law lets social media users sue if they are blocked or their posts are removed based on the user's viewpoint. It also gives companies two days to respond to user complaints about content removal and two weeks to handle appeals if users disagree with the action.

But lawyer Scott Keller argued that the law should be blocked from taking effect Thursday because it violates the First Amendment free speech right of social media companies to monitor, screen and delete content published on their platforms.

Instead, Keller said, the law requires platforms to continue publishing posts that violate their terms of service, including those that glorify Nazis or spread medical misinformation.

"This is a striking assertion of government power," he told U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman during a two-hour in-person hearing Monday in downtown Austin. "The First Amendment protects editorial discretion."

HB 20 also creates an onerous set of regulations on complaints and appeals that would be impossible to meet, Keller argued, noting that in a three-month period earlier this year, YouTube removed 9.5 million videos and 1.16 billion comments for violating decency and other standards.

But Assistant Attorney General Courtney Corbello argued that the law does not stop social media companies from prohibiting certain types of content.

"HB 20 says continue to have your policies, continue to prohibit the content the way you want to, just don't discriminate against people," she said. "HB 20 prohibits viewpoint discrimination. It does not prohibit content moderation."

Corbello also disputed claims that the law is onerous, noting that Facebook and YouTube already inform users when content is removed and have an appeals process in place to resolve disagreements.

Pitman asked why the new law applies only to social media companies that have at least 50 million users a month, limiting its reach to companies such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Pinterest and TikTok. It appears, the judge said, that HB 20 was written to target companies that certain lawmakers disagreed with.

"Why shouldn't people be able to choose, without state regulation ... without state interference (which social media platform to use)?" Pitman asked.

Corbello said the large social media platforms are "completely unregulated" despite having an outsized and sometimes detrimental impact on society, families and children — and many use that reach to limit competition from smaller companies.

But Keller, a former solicitor general in the attorney general's office now in private practice, argued that the law improperly singles out large media companies by setting the limit at 50 million monthly users.

"That's favoring some social media platforms, and it's disfavoring others. This is about platforms perceived to have bias and the government reacting against them. The First Amendment does not allow that," he said.

Industry groups NetChoice and the Computer and Communications Industry Association are seeking a preliminary injunction blocking enforcement of HB 20, which was passed in September during the second of three special legislative sessions.

Pitman said he will issue a ruling as soon as possible, noting that the law goes into effect Thursday, but gave no deadline for action.

"I will do my best to get something out, one way or the other ... but obviously there are important issues that need careful consideration," he said.

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