Legislation that would ban state and local government contracts or aid for tech companies that censor online content could endanger economic development and disrupt operations across universities and school districts, critics told lawmakers Wednesday.
The legislation, Senate File 402, was introduced by Senate President Jake Chapman, R-Adel, and 29 colleagues. It advanced to the full Senate Commerce Committee on a 2-1 subcommittee vote. Sen. Liz Mathis, D-Hiawatha, opposed the bill.
Chapman wants state and local governments to deny contracts and all incentives, including tax breaks and grants, to large tech and social media companies he accused of suppressing conservative viewpoints.
“It’s shameful,” Chapman said. “These liberal executives out of the Silicon Valley are not going to control what Iowans hear, what they see, and they aren’t going to censor them.”
Chapman claimed that major social media platforms have banned biblical phrases including “thou shall not kill,” because of the reference to killing. In extended comments, he said the likes of Facebook, Google, and YouTube are among those deleting content with a conservative bent. No representatives of the individual companies spoke during the meeting.
Social media ‘weaponized’?
Sen. Jason Schultz, R-Schleswig, who joined Chapman to advance the bill, said the legislation is part of the “growing pains” of social media.
Schultz agreed with some critics that the legislation could result in websites leaving up objectionable or even dangerous material to avoid being accused of censorship and losing a contract.
But Schultz said progressives have “weaponized” social media against conservative interests.
“These platforms have become weaponized by progressive ideology and moved to the point that they will leave anything inappropriate on the progressive side of the nation’s ideological spectrum but seem to jump immediately, like a guard dog, against anything that moves to the conservative side,” Schultz said.
Representatives of Iowa’s major business and technology organizations, the Board of Regents and the Iowa attorney general’s office raised concerns about the legislation. The bill would force some of the companies that provide wide-ranging platforms for internet browsing, email and computer programming to end contracts, leaving schools, for example, to scramble to recover, some speakers noted.
Keith Saunders, representing the Iowa Board of Regents and the University of Iowa, said the legislation could make it hard for the three state universities to operate.
“If the contracts we have with many of these tech companies are put at risk, it will be very hard for the universities to actually operate,” Saunders said. “We depend upon these technologies to deliver education, to deliver service and to do research across our campuses.”
As an example, if Microsoft were found to have censored someone, the bill would mean the the loss of university email and phone systems, and computer operating systems for thousands of computers at the University of Iowa. Systems needed to run the university hospital, utility systems and the scoreboard at Kinnick Stadium would have to be replaced, Saunders noted.
Disruption at schools?
Emily Piper of the Iowa Association of School Boards suggested that school districts be removed from the bill. “That is going to be awfully disruptive when we’ve entered into a contract,” Piper said.
Responded Chapman: “With all due respect, I find it just as disruptive that these big tech companies are censoring the ability of Iowans to communicate.”
Robert Palmer of the Iowa League of Cities said his organization opposes the legislation due to potential trouble with existing contracts. “We do not oppose the First Amendment,” he added.
Economic development groups, including the Iowa Chamber Alliance and the Greater Des Moines Partnership, said the bill could make it hard to attract developments like those Facebook, Google and Microsoft already have made in Iowa, adding jobs and charitable giving.
Responded Chapman: “What is the value of the Bill of Rights?”
Nathan Blake, representing the attorney general’s office, said the bill likely would mean Attorney General Tom Miller’s office would need at least one new division just to address those cases. He said the legislation brings up separation of powers issues. And he noted that requiring that Iowans be able to download any platform could be a problem, noting allegations of TikTok’s ties to the Chinese government.
Blake added that the bill allows only 30 days for investigations, which isn’t adequate time.
Mathis said the bill goes too far. Legislation instead could borrow some of the approaches the Federal Communications Commission takes in the broadcast world, she suggested.
“I see what you are trying to get at, Sen. Chapman. I understand the frustrations around it,” Mathis said. “This is an imperfect piece of legislation. To advance this might be more dangerous than you think.”
Brian Waller, president of the Technology Association of Iowa, said the legislation would hinder job creation and economic growth, potentially affecting 300 Iowa-based companies in his organization. When Chapman repeatedly asked Waller to name a specific company that would be affected, Waller said repeated his comment that all of the businesses would be.
Tech company: Bill would interfere with business
Tyler Diers, Midwest executive director of TechNet, a bipartisan organization of tech company CEOs, opposed the bill. Diers said the legislation would make it more likely that objectionable material would remain online.
“Our members are committed to keeping their users safe online, which is why social media companies review millions of pieces of content every day in order to remove harmful content that conflicts with their policies,” Diers said. “Iowa should encourage these companies to have content policies as they govern the removal of content showing the exploitation of children, bullying, harassment, gore, pornography and spam. Instead, this bill perversely creates an incentive for companies to not prohibit and remove any objectionable content in order to keep tax incentives for projects that are providing jobs.”
Carl Szabo, vice president and general counsel of NetChoice, an industry group that supports limited government, said the legislation amounts to “direct interference with private commerce” and free speech.
“I am worried about the silencing of conservative voices,” Szabo said. “I am a conservative. Unfortunately, this is not the right approach. What we are seeing now is something that is essentially upending our conservative principles of limited government and free enterprise.”