The first shot missed, but not by much. And if officials who spoke with The Epoch Times are right, the state’s war against what many legislators view as abuse by Silicon Valley is just getting started.
On March 2, the Montana House of Representatives nearly passed a bill that would have allowed the state to regulate social-media infringements on freedom of speech. The measure failed by one vote.
Under the legislation, known as House Bill 573, companies such as Facebook and YouTube would have been subjected to oversight and scrutiny by the Montana Public Service Commission. Multiple commissioners, elected to regulate utilities and other interests, expressed support for the effort.
Lawmakers also stressed the significance of the plan, describing the bill as a necessary measure to protect the rights of Montanans from unaccountable corporate giants with what a number of legislators described as “extreme” political biases.
“Our collective effort was to ensure that the people in Montana were not subjected to any stripping of their fundamental First, Fourth and 14th amendment rights,” State Representative Brad Tschida, who sponsored the bill, told The Epoch Times.
In particular, he pointed the finger at YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter as among the worst “Big Tech” companies when it comes to violating the rights of his constituents and the people of his state.
Even the president of the United States was banned, meaning nobody is safe without action to stop the abuses, as several lawmakers warned.
“Unfortunately, liberal oligarchs within the Republican caucus in Montana saw fit to put their personal ambitions and desires ahead of the rights and well-being of their constituents,” added Tschida, who is seeking an available state senate seat and vowed that the fight would go on in the next session.
Policymakers also told The Epoch Times that the Montana Senate could take up the legislation, under certain circumstances, potentially setting up another vote in the House.
A Republican state senator who spoke to The Epoch Times by phone expressed interest in carrying the bill if possible, but said it would need to meet certain criteria before being filed this late in the session.
Consistent With Federal Law
One of the architects of the legislation, legal expert Martin Lynch who runs a legal services firm, argued that HB573 was better than the bills being pursued in Florida and Texas on the subject.
That is because the bill “restores fundamental rights and liberties” in a manner consistent with Section 230 of the federal Communications Decency Act (CDA), which sets certain limits on what states can do.
“HB573 would have provided a clear path to due process and equal protection,” Lynch told The Epoch Times, noting that this would be allowed under CDA. “But some Montana legislators do not take their oath to the Constitution seriously.”
Calling for the people of Montana to “clean house,” Lynch said there could be no more important standard than free speech by which to hold elected officials accountable.
“Our rights, including free speech, come from God, and the Constitution protects that, as well as our due process rights,” he said, expressing disappointment that the bill did not succeed this time around. “Lawyers and politicians need to understand that.”
Critics of the bill in the legislature expressed concerns about the “unknown” fiscal impact it might have, as well as worries about more government intrusion into the private sector.
Representative Llew Jones, a Republican who was instrumental in securing enough Republican votes to defeat the bill, did not return voice messages or emails seeking comment by press time.
The legislation would have expanded the Montana Public Service Commission’s authority to include jurisdiction over what the bill described as “access software providers,” which would include the social-media giants.
The Public Service Commission, funded by industry and made up of five elected commissioners representing districts, already regulates public utilities, railroads, energy companies, and other key industries.
Among other elements, the bill would have prohibited “unreasonable censorship” by social-media companies.
“Access software providers may not censor based on the political nature of content,” the bill states.
Under the measure, which is already being considered in other state capitols, alleged victims of censorship and other perceived violations of individual rights would be allowed to file a complaint with the Public Service Commission.
If the dispute cannot be resolved in another manner, the Commission would get involved and issue a final order in each case. Both parties would be able to appeal the ruling in state court.
If the social-media company refuses to comply with the Commission’s ruling, it would be subject to hefty fines, potentially reaching into the millions of dollars.
‘Discrimination and Bigotry’
One of the Public Service Commissioners who rallied behind the bill, Randall “Randy” Pinocci of District 1, was outraged that some “RINO Republicans” joined Democrats to kill the bill by a single vote.
However, he said this was just the first battle in a war against “discrimination and bigotry by Big Tech” that will rage on for years to come, and will eventually go national.
“This bill was not just introduced to help Montana,” Commissioner Pinocci told The Epoch Times, citing the social-media ban on Trump. “This bill was introduced to help lead the nation in stopping the most outrageous examples of discrimination I’ve seen in my lifetime.”
Every day, Democrats are “screaming about discrimination,” Pinocci continued. “But when outrageous discrimination benefits the Democrat Party, apparently they have no interest in stopping it,” he said.
The firebrand commissioner also said the state’s Public Service Commission had a perfect track record when it comes to protecting people from discrimination by the industries it regulates.
“I never heard of a Republican not getting electricity or a Democrat not getting natural gas service,” he said. “I regulate taxicab service in Montana and I never had a complaint about a Native American or African-American being refused taxicab service.”
“If this bill passed and we were able to regulate social-media companies like other utilities, I’m sure the discrimination demonstrated by the CEO of Twitter and the clear discrimination used by Facebook would be nonexistent,” added Pinocci, noting that if they continued they would pay millions in fines.
Pinocci, a former lawmaker with a record of taking on what he describes as “big government,” pointed out that every legislator and Public Service commissioner swears an oath to protect the Constitution and the rights of their constituents.
“But Twitter and Facebook did not swear that oath of office,” he observed.
“To say Facebook and Twitter can continue to use discrimination is like telling the bus company that they can force African-Americans to sit at the back of the bus,” Pinocci continued. “Actually, what Twitter has done is to say Republicans can’t ride the bus at all.”
Calling on the CEO of Twitter to resign immediately, and on Facebook to immediately stop discriminating based on Americans’ political and religious views, Pinocci promised to fight for the bill as long as it takes — even if it does not pass until the next session.
Public Service Commissioner Tony O’Donnell in District 2 argued that self-government in America depends on reining in the abuses by social-media companies.
“The entirety of the bedrock of our ‘experiment’ in representative government is a ‘well informed electorate’ and its absolute necessity is free exchange of ideas,” O’Donnell explained. “Without this, all is lost.”
“If not Montana, then who? If not now, when?” he added, urging lawmakers to act.
Prominent voices in the state such as James White, editor of the conservative-leaning Montana Daily Gazette, described the legislation as arguably the most important bill introduced in the legislature in recent memory.
The Montana bill comes as multiple states consider legislation and other policy measures to rein in perceived censorship, discrimination, and political interference by the powerful technology companies.
YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter were all contacted by The Epoch Times with a request for comment about the bill. None responded by press time.