Occasionally, something happens that is so blatantly and obviously misguided that trying to explain it rationally makes you sound ridiculous. Such is the case with the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals’s recent ruling in NetChoice v. Paxton. Earlier this month, the court upheld a preposterous Texas law stating that online platforms with more than 50 million monthly active users in the United States no longer have First Amendment rights regarding their editorial decisions. Put another way, the law tells big social-media companies that they can’t moderate the content on their platforms. YouTube purging terrorist-recruitment videos? Illegal. Twitter removing a violent cell of neo-Nazis harassing people with death threats? Sorry, that’s censorship, according to Andy Oldham, a judge of the United States Court of Appeals and the former general counsel to Texas Governor Greg Abbott.
A state compelling social-media companies to host all user content without restrictions isn’t merely, as the First Amendment litigation lawyer Ken White put it on Twitter, “the most angrily incoherent First Amendment decision I think I’ve ever read.” It’s also the type of ruling that threatens to blow up the architecture of the internet. To understand why requires some expertise in First Amendment law and content-moderation policy, and a grounding in what makes the internet a truly transformational technology. So I called up some legal and tech-policy experts and asked them to explain the Fifth Circuit ruling—and its consequences—to me as if I were a precocious 5-year-old with a strange interest in jurisprudence.
Techdirt founder Mike Masnick, who has been writing for decades about the intersection of tech policy and civil liberties, told me that the ruling is “fractally wrong”—made up of so many layers of wrongness that, in order to fully comprehend its significance, “you must understand the historical wrongness before the legal wrongness, before you can get to the technical wrongness.” In theory, the ruling means that any state in the Fifth Circuit (such as Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi) could “mandate that news organizations must cover certain politicians or certain other content” and even implies that “the state can now compel any speech it wants on private property.” The law would allow both the Texas attorney general and private citizens who do business in Texas to bring suit against the platforms if they feel their content was removed because of a specific viewpoint. Daphne Keller, the director of the Program on Platform Regulation at Stanford’s Cyber Policy Center, told me that such a law could amount to “a litigation DDoS [Denial of Service] attack, unleashing a wave of potentially frivolous and serious suits against the platforms.” [Continue reading…]