DES MOINES, Iowa – Last week, the Iowa House and Iowa Senate advanced different bills they believe will address censorship by Big Tech companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Google, keeping them alive past the first funnel deadline.
The Iowa Senate Commerce Committee passed SF 402 (now SF 571) Thursday by a vote of 10 to 6. The newly numbered bill was assigned to the Iowa Senate Ways and Means Committee and will have another subcommittee hearing on Wednesday.
SF 571 creates a new section in Iowa Code that provides a reporting and enforcement mechanism. The law prohibits tech companies from engaging in censorship of constitutionally protected speech, with several exceptions. It also prohibits tech companies from preventing Iowans from downloading a social networking site in their application store and requires them to give Iowans the opportunity to opt-out of post-promoting and shadow-banning algorithms.
Companies found to violate the law by a “preponderance of the evidence” under the bill are prohibited from receiving sales tax exemptions or refunds; property tax credits or refunds; or rebates, refunds, reimbursements, or grants for property taxes paid. Political subdivisions may cancel any other agreement not related to tax credits 90 days after the court’s ruling at their discretion. Companies that make changes to comply with the law can apply for a stay after four years, but they will be permanently restricted if found in violation again.
Political subdivisions such as cities, counties, and school districts that violate the could see a ten percent reduction in the tax revenue certified back to that political subdivision by the Iowa Department of Management if a court finds they entered into a contract or provided tax credits to companies in violation with the law.
“We find ourselves in a different time in a different day in which big tech companies are using their unfettered power to restrict the ability of Iowans to voice their opinion, their thoughts, their feelings, and otherwise be able to communicate with those who their friends or otherwise, it is deeply troubling to me, Mr. Chair, that big tech has decided to go down this path of censorship. You know, our great Republic was founded on the belief of being able to share ideas and beliefs. And while we have a great divide, politically, that we find ourselves in today, this is the time more than ever that we need to have respectful disagreements and conversations, not silencing one particular voice or one particular speech,” State Senator Jake Chapman, R-Adel, the bill’s manager, said.
Democrats on the committee disagreed.
“The way it’s set up may meet Senator Chapman’s goal of an obligation to protect Iowans, but realism plays out here. And the very goal to protect Iowans will cost Iowans it will take millions of taxpayer money to make this work,” State Senator Liz Mathis, D-Cedar Rapids, said.
She said the bill could punish Iowans, not just Big Tech companies.
“What could happen out of this retaliation is a punishment – a punishment for communities who have been working for years to attract business or build a workforce and develop Iowa as a great place to live. Wherever there’s an app, a website, a platform to learn to do business to promote communities, there’s a punishment on the very people who live here, work here, learn here,” Mathis added.
Chapman countered during his closing comments.
“Are we going to go to an auction block and auction away our rights? How much?” he asked. “How much are you willing to sell your freedom, your liberties for? How much is it? Maybe there’s a number, but for me, I’m not willing to compromise on it. And sadly, the reality is, if they can censor the President of the United States of America, they can censor any one of us. And they’re doing it.”
Listen to the debate in the Iowa Senate Commerce Committee below:
The Iowa House Judiciary Committee passed an amended version of HF 633 later Thursday afternoon by a vote of 13 to 8. The House version of the bill is not a companion to the Senate bill. In its original version, it was scaled back and much shorter in length. It was amended in committee (at the time of publication, the amended version is not online).
The House bill prohibits a “dominant social media company” from affecting an elected official or candidate’s ability to create, view, comment, or otherwise interact with content that constitutes constitutionally protected speech by restricting either restricting content or access to the social network platform.
The House bill is not retroactive and only deals with tax benefits at the state level.
The bill empowers the Iowa Department of Revenue and Iowa Economic Development Authority to determine if a violation had occurred. If so, the company would be prohibited from receiving future tax credits, sales tax exemptions and refunds, property tax credits and exemptions, or any other special benefits under the state’s purview until there is a determination that the company is no longer in violation.
State Rep. Steve Holt, R-Denison, the bill’s manager, said he would like to find a way to cover every private citizen, and those working on the legislation are exploring how they can do that.
“We’re still exploring this possibility. But the ability to institute this on the state level with the thousands of complaints possible is problematic at best. We believe the implementation of such a plan would require enormous resources, and we have yet to fully explore those applications, that work will continue,” he said.
“We know that the leader of the free world was removed from Twitter and Facebook after the election. While, by the way, the Leader of Iran, who has advocated for the destruction of Israel and our own country, which would mean the death and the independence of people, is still tweeting away to the best of my knowledge. What if an individual running for office is silenced? Consider the implications to free and fair elections for our country. This will profoundly impact not just elected officials but the citizens they represent. So I think it is logical that this is the first piece that we do, and then we continue our work in other areas,” Holt said.
He emphasized that the bill is not a “done deal.” Holt told The Iowa Torch he expects more amendments, and they could still end up adopting the Senate’s bill.
State Rep. Mary Wolfe, D-Clinton, said that due process is warranted with the amount of tax credits and benefits on the line. She wasn’t sure that the Iowa Department of Revenue and Iowa Economic Development Authority are the right entities to make decisions like that.
She also said companies should be able to determine what constitutes hate speech and what violates their rules.
State Rep. Megan Jones, R-Sioux Center, thanked Holt for his work and for distinguishing the House bill from the Senate bill making it more palatable for more people.
State Rep. Jon Jacobsen, R-Council Bluffs, pointed out that Attorney General Tom Miller has joined 47 other attorneys general in suing Facebook for monopolistic anti-competitive practices. He also said a credible argument could be made that Facebook is a state actor.
He also pointed out that Facebook expunged and de-platformed people, including physicians, during COVID-19, who advocated alternate therapies like hydroxychloroquine being used with other drugs. Jacobsen said they have since recanted.
“We probably lost 1000s of Americans because of a covering up of a cheap, plentiful, early efficacious therapy. And these are life and death issues. They impact the livelihoods of all Americans, including Iowans,” Jacobsen said, pointing out empirical studies banned by Facebook showed the efficacy of the treatment.
State Rep. Sandy Salmon, R-Janesville, said social media companies have acted in bad faith.
“When the social media site sets up a digital public square. They sell it to the user as a free, fair, and open to the public platform from which to express First Amendment protected speech. When someone signs up to use a social media website, they enter into a contract with the social media company. So that’s a contract we’re talking about here. When the social media website shuts them down for their speech, they are violating the contract. They have acted in bad faith. They’ve committed unfair dealing, they have committed a deceptive trade practice, and engage in false advertising. They have advertised one thing, a free, fair, digital platform, and it practiced another censorship,” she said.
Holt, in his closing comments, wondered why social media platforms are afraid of free speech.
“I just wonder what big tech companies are afraid of when it comes to civil discourse in differing views?” he said. “Since 1776, our diverse nation which is becoming more diverse every day, has survived and thrived because free speech in a public square that promotes the free exchange of ideas. We solve conflicts through discourse and elections that people’s voices are heard, even if their message doesn’t always carry the day.”
“I believe that in silencing speech, tech companies are only adding to the volatility that is growing in our country,” Holt said.
Listen to the Iowa House Judiciary Committee debate below: