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California Bill Threatens Freedom Of Speech Online



Photo: Flickr Creative Commons / Dr. Richard Pan

California is considering the creation of an advisory group that could radically change the type of information that is available online. CA Senate Bill 1424, introduced by Sen. Richard Pan (D-CA9), would compel the state Attorney General to create a committee by mid-2019 that is tasked with studying the “problem of the spread of false information through internet-based social media platforms” with the intention of finding a way to stop the fake news from being disseminated.

The calls for a check against social media’s power to spread false information have been echoed in the halls of Congress as well as on the media platforms. These calls for change have been prompted both by a renewed interest in information security but also as new details continue to emerge about possible effects that fake media news had on the 2016 presidential election. Given the enormous task of reining in social media news, which has the ability to go viral and reach millions, the California bill would expect the Attorney General to create an actionable plan by the end of 2019.

A Troublesome Plan, Despite Intentions

Although CA S.B. 1424 may have been written with the intentions of trying to stop false information from reaching an impressionable public, there are some inherent problems with introducing this sort of legislation. The first major problem that would emerge from this bill is that it would appoint members of the government as the individuals who would decide which information is true and what information is false.

Granting the power of deciding truths from falsehoods to government officials is a gamble due to the increasingly partisan politics of the modern day. Many are worried that the composition of the advisory could sway public opinion on what is true and what is false. Previous concerns have turned out to be founded in truth, where editors on Facebook showed a bias against materials that favored Republicans and would not publish the information in the “trending” section of the website.

The fact remains that the stakes are much higher with CA S.B. 1424 simply because the bill would appoint a government-sponsored group to determine what content social media and news companies can publish. This infringes upon the rights of media companies to publish news that goes against the established order of the time, and can lead to backlash against the companies for not adhering to a particular point of view.

Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter are all companies that are used by millions to spread news faster than the 24-hour news cycle. Aside from the flawed concept of forced compliance to a particular ideology affecting their businesses, the government in California could force content on such sites to be edited by government officials before posting, creating a serious threat to the First Amendment.

CA S.B. 1424 could be a very slippery slope if the government follows through. Many governments have a poor track history of gaining power over citizens for purely altruistic means, and this case may or may not be different. The bill is continuing its way through the California Senate at the present time.