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Big Tech must prove content moderation works or pay $15K daily fines in Calif. [Updated]

Big Tech must prove content moderation works or pay $15K daily fines in Calif. [Updated]

Today, California Governor Gavin Newsom enacted a law that has been described by its author, California Assemblymember Jesse Gabriel, as “the most stringent transparency measures for Big Tech” in the world.

AB-587 was drafted in direct response to the January 6 attacks on the US Capitol and was designed to hold Big Tech companies like Meta accountable for “grossly inadequate” self-policing of hate speech, disinformation, and conspiracy theories on social media platforms. Now passed, the California law requires social media companies to post their policies and then submit enforcement reports publicly, every quarter, to California’s attorney general.

If companies fail to abide by the law, they risk “penalties of up to $15,000 per violation per day,” enforced by the attorney general or specified city attorneys.

In enacting the law, California hopes to become a leader in regulating Big Tech. State lawmakers said they want to make it easier to implement effective policy mitigating harms caused by abusive online content by learning directly from social media companies “more about the methods of content moderation and how successful they are,” according to a description of the bill shared during Senate Floor Analyses.

“Social media has created incredible opportunities, but also real and proximate threats to our kids, to vulnerable communities, and to American democracy as we know it,” Gabriel said in a press release detailing his nearly two-year battle to pass the law. “This new law will finally pull back the curtain and require tech companies to provide meaningful transparency into how they are shaping our public discourse and addressing hate speech, disinformation, and dangerous conspiracy theories.”

A representative for Newsom told Ars that the governor has no further comment. Gabriel and Meta did not immediately respond to Ars’ request for comment.

Who opposed the law?

According to Gabriel, the bill almost completely stalled in 2021 due to “fierce opposition from major social media companies and their trade associations.”

Reuters reported that tech companies are likely to criticize the law, and Ars’ review of the Senate Floor Analyses confirmed that a coalition of eight “technology and business associations, including the California Chamber of Commerce and TechNet,” opposed the bill during the pivotal Senate vote that led to the law passing.

During the vote, the coalition provided this statement to the Senate, describing what it saw as the law’s overreach:

AB-587 requires companies to publicly disclose more than just content moderation policies, which are already available to the public. The bill requires companies to report to the Attorney General sensitive information about how we implement policies, detect activity, train employees, and use technology to detect content in need of moderation. The language makes it explicit that the bill is seeking “detailed” information about content moderation practices, capabilities, and data regarding content moderation.

But more than 80 tech, legal, anti-hate, and civil rights groups—including the Anti-Defamation League, Equality California, and the NAACP—voiced support. They criticized tech companies’ “opaque, arbitrary, biased, and inadequate” content moderation practices, saying companies shared so little information that it was difficult to track the impact of their self-policing. With more transparency, they argued, “researchers, civil society leaders, and policymakers can determine the best means to address this growing threat to our democracy.”

Ars reached out to Big Tech companies based in and outside of California, including Meta, Twitter, Google, and TikTok, but we did not immediately receive any response. Neither ADL nor TechNet immediately provided Ars with comment. [Update: An ADL director of policy, Kendall Kosai, told Ars that it’s key that enforcement reports sent to California’s AG will be standardized to help policymakers track best practices. He also contradicted the statement from TechNet’s coalition, saying, “the information we’re seeking is not that detailed. It’s anonymized. It’s aggregated. It’s more about understanding the trends and where things are heading in terms of how hate fosters on these platforms.” TechNet communications director Steve Kidera told Ars that the coalition suggested amendments that were not adopted “that would have mitigated our concerns while maintaining the intent of the bill.”]

ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt said in Gabriel’s press release that the law’s passing was a critical response to online hate that has become “too severe,” declaring it “a victory for Internet safety advocates from across not only California but the nation.”

Gabriel said that California’s connection to tech via Silicon Valley prompted the state to step in and regulate Big Tech’s role in disinformation spread because, despite the extreme events of the US Capitol riot, adequate federal response has been lacking.

“In California, we’re immensely proud of our innovation economy, but we also believe that we have a special obligation and a special opportunity to hold these companies accountable,” Gabriel said. “Particularly with the lack of progress at the national level, we believe California must step up and lead.”

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