Texas Republicans want to take on Big Tech.
In a tweet over the weekend, Gov. Greg Abbott said his office is working with Republican state Sen. Bryan Hughes on crafting legislation to stop social media companies from “cancelling conservative speech.”
“What we would like to do is to give any Texan who's being discriminated against the option to bring an action,” Hughes told WFAA’s Inside Texas Politics.
The East Texas state senator didn’t respond to the Observer's request for comment. But Hughes told WFAA he’s preparing to introduce a bill that would offer a legal avenue for Texans booted from social media over terms of service violations.
During the televised interview, Hughes also referenced a similar 2019 bill that “looked at different options for bringing suit." It passed in the state Senate but not the House.
The 2021 bill would help get Texans who were removed for expressing their religious or political views a way to get back online, Hughes said. Federal law allows the state to regulate social media companies, he added.
“We think that will get Facebook's attention, get Twitter's attention, and cause them to start treating Texans fairly,” Hughes said.
Conservatives have accused Facebook and Twitter of infringing on their First Amendment rights. Critics point out that social media companies are private entities and can regulate users’ speech however they like.
Still, Republican lawmakers have long claimed Big Tech wields a big bias against conservatives. Those complaints hit a fever pitch after former President Donald Trump was booted from Twitter — and suspended indefinitely from Facebook — following Jan. 6, when his supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol.
On Wednesday, CNN reported that Twitter’s chief financial officer doubled down on Trump’s permanent ban. The former president won’t be allowed back on the platform, even if he runs for office in 2024.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz has also complained that social media companies silence conservative voices.
“I think they collectively pose the single greatest threat we have to free speech in this country,” Cruz told Fox Business in November.
Hughes’ bill will be particularly popular among the state's conservatives, said professor Matthew Eshbaugh-Soha, chair of the political science department at the University of North Texas. It provides a good opportunity for Republican lawmakers to validate Texas voters’ fears that social media is targeting them.
By including religious discrimination in the bill’s wording, Eshbaugh-Soha said Hughes is “upping the ante.” Freedom of speech is one thing, but including the free exercise of religion covers two First Amendment protections.
Although there aren’t many clear examples of Big Tech cracking down on religious expression, some Christian advocacy groups claim the contrary. Regardless, by talking about religious discrimination, state legislators are setting the agenda, Eshbaugh-Soha said.
“It kind of gets people to think that there’s a potential threat, there’s a potential bias in the system,” he said.
Other nations have done more to regulate social media, but the First Amendment complicates that for the United States, Eshbaugh-Soha said. Trump has long called for the repeal of Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which prevents social media companies from being held liable for users’ content.
President Joe Biden also supports the move, according to the Council on Foreign Relations. Democrats say the law allows Big Tech to shirk responsibility for hate speech and disinformation spread on their platforms. Republicans complain it gives companies cover to censor conservatives.
“In 2016, [Facebook CEO Mark] Zuckerberg was getting it from liberals,” Eshbaugh-Soha said. “Now in 2020, he’s getting it from conservatives.”
But social media isn’t Hughes' only focus this legislative session. He told WFAA he plans to introduce other bills, including one geared toward strengthening election security and another banning abortions once a heartbeat can be detected during pregnancy.
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