California Governor Gavin Newsom (D) signed legislation that developers should be paying close attention to. The new law is the latest effort by lawmakers to force developers into “speech police” roles. That’s to say, under this law developers will be required to monitor speech on their platforms. I’m willing to bet most developers didn’t anticipate taking on this new gig when they set out to create their products.
The bill, in short, requires social media companies to file semiannual reports with the state attorney general that disclose their policies on combating hate speech, extremism, and disinformation. Any company that falls short of meeting these new obligations is subject to penalties by the California attorney general or a city attorney general. It’s safe to assume that many companies may be on the receiving end of crippling fines as they try to navigate the new landscape.
We’ve seen similar attempts to force developers into police-like roles. Earlier this year lawmakers in Texas attempted to prohibit social media platforms from engaging censorship of conservative voices. The Supreme Court appropriately stepped in and blocked this law from taking effect on free speech grounds while a lawsuit winds its way through the courts.
While not an apples to apples comparison, the California and Texas laws are pretty darn close. Developers didn’t sign up to walk a digital beat. No dev sets out to create a product that enables the worst of the worst, but calling on them to figure out ways to keep these sewer creatures at bay simply isn’t feasible. Forcing developers into some kind of oversight role means that they’ll spend more time scouring their platforms for bad actors instead of improving existing apps and creating new ones. It’s also debatable as to what constitutes hate speech and conservative censorship. Are developers the appropriate arbiters of these questions? If forced into this role, my money is the outcome looking more like Police Academy and less like RoboCop.
As lawmakers in Congress and statehouses around the country continue to try and legislate in this space, we would encourage them to take a step back and talk to developers. Understanding this ecosystem can be a herculean task, but it starts with talking to developers to glean insights into things like their backgrounds, products, challenges, and even what they are incapable of doing.