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Content moderation complaints land before SCOTUS

Jan 8, 2024
Animated illustration of the Supreme Court's columns as computer text cursors.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

Complaints about how social media companies enforce their content rules are heading to their most powerful audience yet: the Supreme Court of the United States.

Driving the news: Last week, the Supreme Court announced it will hear oral arguments in NetChoice, LLC v. Paxton and Moody v. NetChoice, LLC on Feb. 26.

  • At issue are state laws in Texas and Florida seeking to regulate how social media companies control content on their platforms. Lower courts have been debating the laws for two years.

Why it matters: Social media platforms have long dealt with complaints about their content rules, mostly from conservative politicians.

  • Stakes have never been higher for the companies as these complaints have found their way to the Supreme Court in an election year, when politicians will be turning to social media to reach voters.
  • The court could severely impair the ability to moderate content during a heated election if the justices are sympathetic to the states' arguments.

What they're saying: Axios caught up with Matthew Schruers, CEO of the Computer & Communications Industry Association, which represents tech platforms and is a co-plaintiff for these cases.

  • "We're teeing off what will probably be one of the most important internet First Amendment cases of the decade here, because it's the very critical question of whether or not the government can regulate the editorial decisions of private businesses online."
  • "When it comes to questions of the democratic process and politics, that is precisely what the founders had in mind when they prohibited the state from controlling the speech of individuals or individual publishers."

How it works: Both states' laws create mechanisms for individual residents to sue large social media companies, as well as for the states to bring actions against or penalize the companies.

  • CCIA describes the laws as "must-carry" statutes preventing digital services from using their First Amendment rights to determine what content is displayed.
  • Most provisions of both states' laws have been stayed thus far.

Threat level: Such laws put people at risk, Schruers said, if social media companies are forced to leave false or dangerous information online based on the Texas and Florida laws.

  • "If your equal treatment puts foreign propaganda and extremist content on equal footing with 'God Bless America,' you're doing it wrong," said Schruers.

Flashback: The idea that social media companies unfairly censor political viewpoints has been debated in Congress, statehouses and the White House; former President Trump accused tech platforms of muzzling him constantly.

  • The arguments have been loud, and they've raised questions about the role of social media companies in political debate and whether politicians should operate by different rules than the public.
  • Democrats have also applied pressure on social media companies over their content rules, but it's been focused more on getting them to take down health and policy misinformation and making platforms safer for younger users.

Be smart: All that this debate has resulted in is tweaks to individual company policies based on who's in power, a lot of political rhetoric, content bills that haven't passed and a constant fight between politicians and private industry.

  • Schruers said there is a long history of U.S. courts ruling that the government "has no place interfering in the editorial decisions of what private companies choose to disseminate or not disseminate."

The intrigue: Presidential candidate and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the Florida bill into law in 2021.

  • We'll be watching to see if he comments on the case or lodges new social media complaints on the campaign trail.
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