News Story

Michigan Bill Would Ban ‘Viewpoint Discrimination’ By Facebook, Google

‘Social media networks are the new public square’

A Republican state representative has introduced a bill that would make it illegal in Michigan for social media companies such as Google or Facebook to “censor, ban, shadow-ban” or use other means to exercise viewpoint discrimination against users on the basis of the person’s political opinions.

State Rep. John Reilly of Oakland Township introduced House Bill 4801 on June 26. A press release from the Michigan House Republican caucus cited a Project Veritas undercover sting that secretly recorded a Google executive, Jen Gennai, saying that her company is focused on “never letting somebody like Donald Trump come to power again.”

The bill has been referred to the House Communications and Technology Committee, chaired by Rep. Michele Hoitenga, R-Manton.

“This isn’t a question of property rights. This is a question of fraud,” Reilly said in the press release. “In this modern era, social media networks are the new public square. Banning – and worse, secretly banning while deceiving the user into believing their content is being shared equally – excludes individuals from public life.”

Reilly continued: “Social media companies cannot eat their cake and have it too. They cannot enjoy the privileges of being a platform, such as immunity from liability for users’ content, while also enjoying the privileges of being a publisher to control what everyone may or may not say on their network.”

Antony Davies, an associate professor of economics at Duquesne University, said in an email that there is a distinction between a government entity and a private enterprise.

“Where Google and Facebook are concerned, it may be time for everyone to take a deep breath,” said Davies. (Davies is a member of the Board of Scholars at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, which publishes Michigan Capitol Confidential.)

“But a private enterprise is funded through cooperation. You agree to provide something to the private enterprise and the private enterprise agrees to provide something to you. You and it cooperate in making both you and it better off,” Davies said. “At any point, you are free to walk away from the enterprise. In some cases, like in choosing a grocery store, walking away is easy. In others, like choosing an employer, it’s harder. But the relationship between you and the enterprise is voluntary.”

Davies continued: “Google and Facebook are private enterprises. Facebook has every right to censor and even ban people. I believe that is, generally, a bad business decision and it definitely makes Facebook less valuable to a lot of users. But Facebook has the right to walk away from its relationship with us just as we have the right to walk away from our relationship with Facebook.”

Davies said that decisions to promote one political viewpoint over another will eventually be bad for business.

“Because Google and Facebook are private enterprises, when enough people finally get fed up with their content controls, people will walk away and the websites will fade into obscurity as quickly as they emerged. Don’t believe me? Ask the former employees at the once high-flying AltaVista, Yahoo, or MySpace,” Davies said.

He added that politicians should not be involved in how a private business conducts itself.

“Politicians’ efforts to dictate how Google and Facebook control content on their platforms dangerously blur the important distinction between public and private enterprises,” Davies said.

The legislation would amend the state Consumer Protection Act to explicitly prohibit “a provider of an interactive computer service” that represents itself as “viewpoint neutral, impartial, or nonbiased” from taking certain actions based on a user’s political views. It could not: “block a user's speech; censor a user's speech; ban a user; remove a user’s speech; shadow ban a user; deplatform a user; deboost a user; demonetize a user; otherwise restrict the speech of a user.”

The act authorizes lawsuits by individuals, prosecutors or the state attorney general, and empowers courts to impose damage awards, enjoin (halt) specific practices, or issue declaratory judgment that a method, act, or practice is unlawful.