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Lawmakers, experts fight over bid to stop social media firms from censoring users


House committee members considered Wednesday a bill that would allow users to sue large social media platforms that block or censor user content based on the user's viewpoint — legislation related in part to former President Donald Trump's Twitter ban. 

Lawmakers and experts Wednesday bandied arguments of free speech, private business rights and what constitutes the "public square" in debating the wisdom of the measure, but stopped short of moving the legislation to the full House.

Similar measures in Florida and Texas have been immediately challenged. Florida's law was ultimately blocked, and Texas' statute was allowed to proceed recently after a 5th Circuit Court of Appeals decision but an appeal is pending before the U.S. Supreme Court. 

"These are the digital town square," state Rep. Ryan Berman, R-Commerce Township, said of large social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter. Berman sponsored the bill.

"If you can’t be banned in the physical town square from putting your viewpoints out there, I think you should be protected in the digital one as well,” he said.

Rep. John Damoose, R-Harbor Springs, questioned the legality of such a ban on regulating content, noting television stations and news organizations make daily decisions on what content to feature and what to turn away. 

"Why is Facebook, for instance, more like the public square than the television station or a private newspaper?” Damoose asked. 

Berman's bill would require social media platforms with over 50 million users and a presence in Michigan to be considered "common carriers" — such as railroads, ferries, airlines, telegraphs and telephones — that should accept all customers and could not censor content based on a user's viewpoint or geography.

The bill would allow social media platforms to censor content that incites criminal activity, violence, harassment of victims of sexual abuse or the sexual exploitation of children. 

The legislation would allow users to sue the social media platform if they believed the platform had wrongfully censored them. 

Adam Candeub, professor of law at Michigan State University, spoke out in support of the legislation Wednesday and noted it would also prohibit sites from using algorithms to discriminate against certain opinions, expressions or viewpoints. 

"It would require an even-handed application of the algorithms," Candeub said. 

Several individuals who testified Wednesday opposed the legislation, arguing it violated the rights of private businesses, would make it difficult for niche social media platforms to survive and would wade into a mire of difficult regulatory decisions. 

"Online content moderation often entails many decisions that are far from black and white," said Jennifer Huddleston of the tech industry trade group NetChoice. "Government intervention not only violates free market principles but makes these underlying difficult decisions far more difficult.”

Spence Purnell, of the libertarian Reason Foundation, pushed back on descriptions of large social media platforms as quasi-public entities, arguing lawmakers were missing the true definition of a public square. 

"It's very narrowly defined as something that the government has opened for use by the public as a place for expressive activity. I think social media companies are a very different definition," Purnell said.

"They’re private services intended for consumers and intended to make profit.”

eleblanc@detroitnews.com