Gavin Newsom Signs California Social Media Transparency Law

President Joe Biden talks with California Gov.  Gavin Newsom as he arrives at Mather Airport on Air Force One Monday, Sept.  13, 2021.

President Joe Biden talks with California Gov. Gavin Newsom as he arrives at Mather Airport on Air Force One Monday, Sept. 13, 2021.
Photo: Evan Vucci (AP)

California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced late Tuesday that he’d signed a “first-of-its-kind” bill into law designed to “protect Californians from hate and disinformation spread online.”

AB 587 will require “social media platforms” to include in their terms of service (TOS) a list of editorial policies defining the kinds of activities allowed on social networks versus those that can result in actions taken against the user. The law further requires relevant companies to describe any actions that may be taken, from the removal of a post to the suspension of an account.

The companies must also provide users with details of how to contact a given company and file complaints about its policies.

Additionally, the bill includes reporting requirements, which will force companies like Facebook and Twitter to deliver “complete and detailed descriptions” of any changes to their TOS during the previous quarter. Companies must indicate whether the changes pertain to a specific list of issues, including: “Hate speech or racism,” “Extremism or radicalization,” “Disinformation or misinformation,” “Harassment,” and “Foreign political interference.”

And finally, it includes a list of necessarily disclosures, such as: “How automated content moderation systems enforce terms of service of the social media platform and when these systems involve human review,” and, “How the social media company responds to user reports of violations of the terms of service.”

California Assemblymember Jesse Gabriel, who introduced AB 587, said the bill would serve to “pull back the curtain and require tech companies to provide meaningful transparency into how they are shaping our public discourse, as well as the role of social media in promoting hate speech, disinformation, conspiracy theories, and other dangerous content.”

Not everyone agrees these measures will be effective, or that they should even be legal requirements at all. Some requirements are redundant with practices already common across the industry, experts say.

Eric Goldman, a law professor at Santa Clara University — oft-cited for his expertise on the foundational Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act — detailed his numerous issues with the billincluding the very definition of “social media platforms,” ​​which he found untested by the legal system.

“To the extent the bill inhibits services from making an editorial decision using a policy/practice that hasn’t been pre-announced, the bill would control and skew the services’ editorial decisions,” said Goldman, who criticized the bill for having too much in common with laws passed by Republicans in Texas and Florida.

Similar terminology as that found in AB 587 — which includes several notable exemptions, such as one for companies that made less than $100 million in revenue last quarter (and by that definition, could include former President Trump’s “Truth Social,” among an array of other well-known but unprofitable startups) — has been used in “about 20 other laws,” Goldman said, but has never been debated in court.

“Every word,” he wrote, “invites litigation.”

Goldman also took issue with the section defining “terms of service,” calling it a “censorial trap.” The issue, he explained, is that secrecy (or at least, “ambiguity”) is potentially justified in certain circumstances. These circumstances, he suggested, might include a company withholding details about the mechanics behind a specific policy in order to prevent malicious actors from gaming their system; interpretations of policy made “on the fly” to mitigate cases involving a user’s safety; or policies and information that governments either ask or legally require to be kept from the public.

Mike Masnik, the founder and editor of Techdirt, raised similar complaints: “Under 587, websites now basically have to teach disinfo peddlers how best to game their systems, and can’t do much to deal with them without violating the law,” he wrote.

The professor, who routinely blogs on internet and marketing legal issues, spells out numerous other concerns — some related to the law’s structure and other disclosure requirements — which you can appraise for yourself here.

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