California Legislators Advance Limiting “Influential” Anonymous Online Speech

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(Kenneth Schrupp, The Center Square) – California legislators nearly unanimously voted to limit “influential” anonymous online free speech by requiring social media companies to “seek to verify” personal information — including government-issued identification —  for “influential” accounts.

While supporters say users need help distinguishing between good and bad information, opposition warned the bill, without defining “seek to verify,” threatens anonymous online speech.

With the bill applying to companies with at least one million annual California users, it would affect major social media companies worldwide.

Under SB 1228, by State Sen. Steve Padilla, D-Chula Vista, social media companies would be required to “seek to verify” the personal information of “influential” users, including seeking government-issued identification from “highly influential users.” Influential users who do not comply would have a “notation” on their content for two seconds showing the user is unverified showing the rest of a post, after which the notation would still be visible.

“The average person does not have convenient tools at the moment to distinguish between content produced by a reputable news source or AI generated misinformation,” said Padilla at the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing for the bill. “Numerous studies have shown that online anonymity results in increased unconstrained postings.”

“Influential” users would need to submit their name, telephone number, and email address if they have 15,000 or more followers, or more than 50,000 views within a week, or rank in the top 6% of platform views within a week. “Highly influential” users would need to submit government-issued identification if they have 30,000 or more followers, or more than 100,000 views within a week, or rank in the top 3% of  views within a week.

Bill supporters clarified the bill would not ban anonymous online speech.

“It does not require platforms to force users to verify their identity, and it does not prevent users from using pseudonyms or no name at all when they are engaging in online speech,” said Mariko Yoshihara of the California Initiative for Technology & Democracy, to the committee. “This bill simply requires platforms to seek to verify the identity of users once they have reached a certain threshold that we have identified as influential.”

Opposition to the bill focused on the historical American importance of anonymous speech, and the danger a lack of clarity on “seek to verify” poses, as companies that fail to “seek to verify” influential users would face lawsuits from state or local government attorneys for “injunctive or other equitable relief.”

“It is unclear what constitutes satisfying the bill’s requirement to seek to verify influential users,” said Khara Boender of the Computer & Communications Industry Association to the committee. “These users may be speaking about sensitive topics, represent dissident opinions under oppressive regimes, or be part of a marginalized community, among other reasons. Anonymous speech is a long held value and tradition in the United States dating back to the Federalist Papers. Protecting anonymity of online speech carries forward such traditions and protections to allow for open and free expression.”

The bill moved forward to the Senate Appropriations Committee nearly unanimously, save for a lone “no” from State Sen. Roger Niello, R-Fair Oaks.

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