Tired of seeing Montanans censored by and booted from Twitter and Facebook, Hamilton Senator Theresa Manzella and Montana’s Public Service Commission teamed up Thursday attempting to sell lawmakers on policing social media.
Their plan was to hire 14 new employees at the PSC, including 10 data analysts, two lawyers and two administrative assistants in order to investigate cases of Montanans being “de-platformed,” that is to say blocked from a social media website. Senate Bill 391 wasn’t the first attempt by Montana Republicans to police the internet. Earlier, the House killed a similar measure. A third bill, HB 492, requiring internet companies to only offer hard-core porn to adult Montanans who “opt in” passed through committee only to be brought up again and killed.
Exhibit 1 was a Time Magazine column suggesting a vast conspiracy between Democrats and Big Tech to shape the election.
“It's a lengthy article, and it goes through blow by blow, step by step, how they utilized social media, how they pressured social media owners to, what they call, eliminate disinformation,” Manzella told the Senate Energy Committee. “What others, what we might call, those of us who partake in civil discourse might call, a difference of opinion.”
Businesses Twitter and Facebook did eventually suspend Donald Trump’s accounts, choosing to do so Jan. 6 as rioters stormed Congress, interrupting the certification of the electoral college results. Twitter and Facebook concluded Trump’s false, seditious remarks about being the victim of a stolen election presented too big a risk. The president of the United States, able to summon television networks easily, was being booted from the land of emojis and gifs. Reddit pulled the plug on Trump forums. Snapchat shut him out of their app. YouTube suspended Trump’s channel.
“And that's a big problem when the president of the United States cannot have a presence on social media,” Manzella said. “So what do we do about it? We know we've got a big problem. We need a big solution.”
Randy Pinocci, a Republican Public Service Commission member from Sunburst, said the five-member commission had decided it was time to take on social media for de-platformed Montana. The plan was to investigate claims by Montanans booted from internet forums. The state would keep the number of cases down by requiring anyone with a complaint to pay a $500 filing fee, a rate Pinocci said would discourage frivolous claims.
The PSC, which regulates monopoly utilities, garbage services, taxis and the like would add the internet to its collection of businesses with captive customers unable to get the same services from someone else. Social media has turned into one of the monopoly businesses for which there is no alternative, Pinocci said.
“When I think about it, we probably should have been doing this about five years ago, because problems have been developing. More people use social media than natural gas and electricity combined,” Pinocci said. He paused to let the sheer number of computers and mobile devices, all plugged into the internet, humming with electricity from somewhere, sink in.
There would be sideboards, Pinocci explained. Montanans wanting to appear before the PSC would have to try to work out their issues with social media in writing before approaching the commission. And, to prevent Big Tech from tying everything in knots, the loser would have to pay all court costs. And there would be fines, 1% of the company’s gross income, half going to the state of general fund, half to the victim.
“I believe that we won't see many complaints, because once social media understands that a regulator to protect the public is put in place by you, I don't believe that they will commit the offense of discrimination like they are now,” Pinocci said. “It's kind of like a police officer in front of a bank. The bank doesn't get robbed. There's a policeman in front of the bank. If you're going to rob a bank you are certainly going to pick the one without the policeman. Now, the nation turned to me and said, ‘Well, what do you think about the idea of regulating it as a utility?’ I represent Montana aggressively. I travel my district often. I'm ready to roll up my sleeves if this legislature tells me 'We want you to do this job.'”
Legislators on the committee were more skeptical.
“One part that strikes me a little bit is if commissioners Pinocci and Brown and Fielder and Johnson, if they were all Democrats, would I be as happy about them being in charge of controlling this business?” said Sen. Mike Cuffe, a Republican from Eureka. “You know? Or maybe some of the folks across the aisle here would have concerns about having five Republicans proposing they'd be in charge of it. I appreciate the fact they've stepped up and I appreciate the conversation. But should it be part of our IT? You know, we have a pretty extensive IT department and people that are everyday battling, I forget what you call it, people trying to invade our, the cybersecurity stuff. Would this be more fitting with somebody like that?”
Manzella said research on the bill proved the PSC was the best regulator. Other states had attempted to use attorneys general, but the solution didn’t work.
But what if a Montanan was out of state when they were de-platformed, asked Sen. Ryan Lynch, a Butte Democrat. “Logistically, how would it work for some of the residents that we have that are here part time and not here part time? And folks that may be traveling, say I go to Idaho for a month for a job? Would you still be subject to regulate a resident that's not in the state? Or what's the jurisdictional issues look like in that instance?”
Pinocci said the PSC would try to represent Montanans wherever they were, but the services could be offered only to Montanans registered to vote in the state.
The committee voted to 8 to 5 to table the bill.