State lawmakers can do stupid things to the Internet too

10 March 2018 by Steve Blum
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State legislatures and governors are stepping into the void left by the Federal Communications Commission when it rolled back network neutrality last year. Laws reinstating net neutrality requirements of one kind or another passed or are pending in California, Washington, Oregon and elsewhere. In Montana, governor Steve Bullock did it by executive order.

That’s a trend that cheers up net neutrality advocates, but there’s another side to it that’s not so pleasant and offers a solid argument for keeping states out of the business of regulating the Internet. In at least two states – California and Rhode Island – legislators introduced bills that regulate Internet services on the basis on content.

Two democratic state senators in Rhode Island want ISPs to block pornography, although users would be able to pay a $20 fee to unblock it.

In California, it’s politics that has assemblyman James Gallagher (R – Chico) all hot and bothered. He thinks “social media Internet web sites” and search engines should be politically neutral. At least as he understands the concept. So he introduced assembly bill 3169, which would make it illegal for a social media platform or search engine to remove or manipulate content “on the basis of the political affiliation or political viewpoint of that content”.

Gallagher defines social media broadly. It includes, but isn’t necessarily limited to, “videos, still photographs, blogs, video blogs, podcasts, instant and text messages, email, online services or accounts, or Internet Web site profiles or locations”.

Both his bill and the Rhode Island measure are on a collision course with the First Amendment, which exists to prevent politicians from using the coercive power of government to control what content is published. Or not.

It doesn’t look like he’s done any deep thinking on the subject. It’s possible – likely, I’d guess – Gallagher knows his bill has zero chance of becoming law and just wants to score some cheap points with his political base. It’s a particularly noxious way to do it, though.