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DES MOINES - Legislation that would withdraw tax incentives to Big Tech companies found to have censored online speech advanced in the Iowa Legislature, but lawmakers acknowledged the bill needs work, and Gov. Kim Reynolds stopped short of endorsing their efforts.
House File 633 would target 'dominant social media companies” by blocking or taking away government financial incentives for companies like Facebook and Google, which have data centers in Iowa, if it was determined in court they were limiting free speech.
The bill is similar to Senate File 402, which also has been approved by a subcommittee. Senate President Jake Chapman, R-Adel, said the bill targets internet sites and digital marketplaces that seem to be blocking conservatives who voice opinions on social media platforms.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Steve Holt, R-Denison, acknowledged the practical implications of writing legislation involving the regulation of free speech.
'But I am concerned about Big Tech media censorship in what now is clearly a major part of the public square,” he said at a subcommittee meeting Thursday. 'I understand absolutely the work we have to do to make this workable. We also have to be respectful of private companies and their rights. So there are a lot of realities we're dealing with.”
Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls, D-Coralville, wasn't sure Republicans advancing the bills were dealing with reality.
'It's obviously a very radical proposal,” he said during a virtual news conference. 'It's based on a lie. No conservatives are being kicked off of Twitter because they're conservative.”
Proof of that was a Twitter conversation Wednesday night between Chapman and Donald Trump Jr., he said.
'If conservatives were being removed from Twitter because they were conservative, Sen. Chapman would not be able to tweet at Donald Trump Jr.,” Wahls said.
Rep. Jennifer Konfrst, D-Windsor Heights, suggested lawmakers might need a primer on the First Amendment.
'Your First Amendment rights are not restricted because a private company chooses not to allow you to speak,” she said. The First Amendment applies to government limiting free speech.
One of the concerns voiced by Rep. Jon Jacobsen, R-Council Bluffs, was the relationship between the state and Big Tech through its cooperation - such as sharing criminal information - with government.
There's also a 'public square” question because the public square is no longer just a physical space, but a digital venue as well, Jacobsen said.
Lynn Hicks, spokesman for Attorney General Tom Miller, said if the bill becomes law it could greatly increase the workload of the office.
He also cited a 2019 Congressional Research Service report that found 'lawsuits predicated on these sites' decisions to host or remove content have been largely unsuccessful.”
House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, agreed something has to be done. He didn't endorse HF 633, but 'as far as the concept of what's being worked on, I think there's some things in there that our caucus can support.”
Reynolds understands Republican legislators' frustrations 'with what they see as censorship on social media.”
The conversation is part of the legislative process, Reynolds said, adding that lawmakers also should consider what signal it would send to Google, Microsoft, Apple and Facebook - Big Tech companies that have invested in Iowa - if the state threatens to take away the economic development incentives used to recruit them.
'That's a discussion that needs to be had in the Legislature,” she said. 'That's questions that they should be asking.”
The bill likely will be taken up by the full Judiciary Committee next week to beat lawmakers' self-imposed March 8 funnel deadline for bills to remain eligible for consideration.
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