Social media oversight invoice fails

This week, the Senate’s Energy and Telecommunications Committee tabled a bill that seeks to place oversight of social media within the purview of the state’s Public Service Commission, apparently ending the move.

Proponents of Senate Bill 391 argued that regulation of big tech was necessary to prevent unfair censorship of political speeches, while opponents argued that it was logistically difficult and ideologically inappropriate for private company police to do so. All five Democrats on the committee and four of its nine Republicans voted in favor of submitting the measure shortly after hearing the bill.

Senator Theresa Manzella, R-Stevensville, sponsors SB 391. She told the committee Thursday afternoon that she submitted the bill because she believed platforms like Facebook had become monopolies that unfairly and indiscriminately censor users.

In her remarks, Manzella referred to the removal of former President Donald Trump from social media platforms.

“It’s a big problem when the President of the United States can’t be on social media,” she said.

SB 391 lays down a procedure for a person who feels wrongly censored by a software provider to seek recourse. First, that person would contact the company in question and try to resolve the dispute without involving the PSC. If a solution is not found, the petitioner could file a lawsuit with the PSC, which would be required to reach a decision within 30 days of a hearing. If the PSC determines that the software provider is not complying with the order, the company may impose a fine of up to 1% of its gross sales for the duration of its non-compliance.

The bill had a polarized reception. A legal notice posted last month indicating that the bill may violate federal law sparked an unusual claim that the legislator’s legal service provided “false legal advice”.

A similar move, sponsored by Rep. Brad Tschida, R-Missoula, narrowly failed in second reading in the House of Representatives last month, but Manzella told committee members she felt her bill was in a stronger position to overturn to move forward because it is supported by the PSC. On March 23, the PSK voted 3-2 to support SB 391.

Randy Pinocci, who has been with PSC since 2018, was one of the few supporters to testify for the bill on Thursday. He said he sees social media regulation as a natural evolution of the PSC’s mission.

“When I think about it, we probably should have done this about five years ago,” he said. “I am ready to roll up my sleeves if this legislation tells me, ‘We want you to do this.'”

The bill’s fiscal note estimates that 14 full-time posts would be required to implement the bill’s provisions. However, Pinocci expects the complaints will ease once the platforms get used to the regulation.

“It’s like a cop in front of the bank,” he said. “This bank won’t be robbed if a cop is in front of you.”

Maurice Cameron, a Great Falls man who works as a network security analyst, said social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter are “a hacker’s paradise.” Oversight over the regulations could help protect the Montans from bad actors, he said.

Other proponents spoke of personal and professional frustrations resulting from the launch of social media or being “throttled” by platforms and limiting access to audiences.

Montana Daily Gazette editor, Jordan Hall, and Jim White, who works with Hall and for Northwest Liberty News, described the frustration with Twitter, YouTube, Mailchimp, and other companies. White said his channel’s views on YouTube had declined 95% in the past two years. Hall said tech companies are “far more interested in stifling political speech than stopping criminal behavior.” and outlined a number of cases where he said the content of his website had been censored.

Opponents of the measure argued that the PSK was not prepared to rule on issues of freedom of speech. that the market, not the government, is best positioned to facilitate public exchanges; and it shouldn’t be the job of this government to tell private companies what kind of speech to allow on their platforms.

Patrick Webb, who appeared on behalf of the Montana chapter of Americans for Prosperity, said the Internet is still a relatively new technology that is increasingly painful. He said that while he sympathizes with the proponents of SB 391, he thinks there are more appropriate solutions to the problem they are describing.

“The answer is more language and empowerment of the market to find solutions to solve these problems,” he said. The addition of new platforms, including one reportedly developed by Trump, is proof that the market is working the way it should, he said. He added that his organization also opposed Tschida’s bill.

Speaking for the Internet Association trading group, Rose Feliciano said the PSC lacks the authority, resources and knowledge to resolve disputes.

“These are first change questions, not evaluation suggestions,” she said.

Samantha Kersul, executive director of TechNet’s Northwest Region Policy Officer, argued that a restaurant owner would be entitled to remove a customer who was shouting racist statements in their establishment and that a similar logic should apply to companies in the tech space.

“Seventeen states heard and rejected similar laws this year, and North Dakota only joined that list today,” she added.

After a brief hiatus, the Senate Energy and Telecommunications Committee announced that Montana would join these other states. All five Democrats on the committee and four of its Republicans voted for table SB 391.

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