On Monday, a bill to require social media platforms to publicly disclose corporate policies on what exactly gets people temporarily banned or permanently banned from those sites was introduced in the Assembly.
Assembly Bill 587, authored by Assemblyman Jesse Gabriel (D-Woodland Hills), would require social media companies to post their terms of service in a specified manner and with additional specified information. This would mean that social media companies such as Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit would need to update their terms of service and publicly disclose their policies regarding user behavior and activities that can result in a temporary or permanent ban of a user. According to Assemblyman Gabriel’s office, this can mean disclosing their corporate policies regarding “online hate, disinformation, extremism, harassment, and foreign interference, as well as key metrics and data regarding the enforcement of those policies.”
AB 587, known as the Social Media Transparency and Accountability Act of 2021, would also require social media companies to submit biannual and quarterly reports to the Attorney General starting in July 2022. This would include reports on what the current version of the terms of service on a biannual basis, what content violates the terms of service, what specific categories gets people banned or semi-banned on a biannual basis, and data related to violations of the terms of service on a quarterly basis. This would include disclosing key metrics and data regarding flagged content, and what methods were used to flag the content.
Assemblyman Gabriel wrote the bill, which would be the first of its kind in the U.S., to help combat hate speech, disinformation, and other detrimental or dangerous usage and show what exactly those boundaries are in each site.
“Californians are becoming increasingly alarmed about the role of social media in promoting hate, disinformation, conspiracy theories, and extreme political polarization,” said Assemblyman Jesse Gabriel. “It’s long past time for these companies to provide real transparency into their content moderation practices. The public and policymakers deserve to know when and how social media companies are amplifying certain voices and silencing others. This is an important first step in a broader effort to protect our democracy and better regulate social media platforms.”
Bipartisan support for AB 587
AB 587 received bipartisan support after being introduced on Monday, with no Assembly members opposing the bill. Many anti-hate groups, as well as former government communications officials supported the bill, noting that it would lead to a reduction of violence and would increase social media transparency.
“This legislation would move us closer to holding social media companies accountable for the hate and harassment they allow on their platforms, particularly when that hate and harassment leads to violence,” Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt said. “The reporting requirements outlined in the bill will put big tech’s conduct under a bright light, and it is our hope that social media companies would either respond by improving their corporate policies and the enforcement of those policies or that the reporting requirements would provide enough evidence for legal action against them if real progress is not made.”
Former Federal Election Commission (FEC) Chairwoman Ann Ravel also gave support on Monday.
“Greater transparency can combat the rise of disinformation, hate speech, and calls to violence that are omnipresent on social media and destructive to our democracy,” said Ravel. “By creating clear guidelines requiring online platforms to disclose their policies and their enforcement of those policies, the Social Media Transparency and Accountability Act of 2021 will increase public trust and engender more awareness by tech companies about the deceptive and harmful activity on their platforms. To preserve our democracy, social media platforms must be accountable and transparent to the public, and this bill is an important step in that direction.”
Social media experts noted that AB 587 would also be a big game changer in California, and would greatly change the ways users would interact with social media.
“Social media companies have been very hush hush on what they exactly do to find this sort of content and what they choose to do to the person or group that posts it,” Silver Lake-based social media consultant Blaine Michaels told the Globe. “This bill is a game changer. Not only would they have to crack open the hood for the first time, they would have to do it publicly. While we know partially what some of these metrics are, we don’t know everything that goes into it, and some have fought tooth and nail to not let anyone know. They’re like a politician or a drug company that doesn’t want a damning court affidavit released publicly. They’ll do all they can to stop it.”
“But the thing is that Democrats and Republicans alike want this passed. Both sides love the transparency, but both groups are also angry at them for banning or even perceiving targeted bans against them in the last several years. Many Republicans posting things were outraged when their posts, many pro-Trump, got them banned or flagged, with many Democrats also being upset about bans over certain things being said on their side, like foreign interference on social media during the 2016 election, or more recently in helping organize the 2021 Capitol riot in the District. They managed to make everyone mad at them in a span of three years. And what they don’t want is this bill passing in California, or worse, spreading across the country and the world.”
“Really, whether you are right or left, you would be able to find out exactly how and why your post got you in trouble with the site, and not just a generic user agreement violation prompt.”
AB 587 is expected to be heard in both the Assembly Privacy and Consumer Protection Committee and the Assembly Judiciary Committee in the coming weeks. Social media companies are also expected to come out against the bill soon.
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