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Bill Targeting Big Tech Advances In Iowa Senate

Iowa’s Capitol building.
John Pemble
IPR file
Republican supporters say the bill is meant to safeguard conservative speech on social media platforms and other sites they say are biased in the way they moderate content online.

Tax breaks and government contracts for big tech companies like Google and Facebook could be cancelled under a bill advancing in the Iowa Senate.

Tech companies have taken stronger steps in recent month to counter misinformation online, but a bill advanced by a Senate subcommittee Wednesday (SF 402) would prohibit cities and counties from providing them economic incentives if a court finds they blocked content that is constitutionally protected.

Industry and local government groups came out against the bill, saying it could steer companies toward other states instead of expanding operations in Iowa cities such as Altoona or Council Bluffs where Facebook and Google have data centers.

Republican supporters said social media platforms and other sites are biased in the way they moderate content online. The bill, they said, is meant to safeguard conservative speech.

“This is not to simply get the attention of big tech, this is to change the behavior of big tech,” said Sen. Jake Chapman, R-Adel. “They can continue with all of the policies they have administered thus far, but Iowans aren’t going to foot the bill for it.”

Tech industry representatives told the Senate panel that content is removed from social media and other platforms when it is obscene or may be harmful. They said companies would be forced to decide whether to leave the state in order to enforce standards on their sites without defending those decisions in court.

“It would be bad public policy for the legislature to weaponize economic development programs in order to forward a political agenda at the expense of the state’s economic interests,” said Tyler Diers, Midwest executive director of TechNet, a tech industry trade group.

Sen. Jason Schultz, R-Schleswig, said tech companies face a difficult task monitoring their sites for offensive posts, but he said they should be hands-off with political content.

“It’s been weaponized by progressives to muzzle conservative speech,” Schultz said. “I think you have to let both or you have to stop both if you’re a private company trying to be consistent.”

Enforcing the bill against tech companies would be a daunting task, Chief Deputy Iowa Attorney General Nathan Blake told the subcommittee. The department does not have the powers it would need to investigate complaints or enough resources to handle the cases in court, he said.

Besides losing tax breaks, Sen. Chapman said a company in violation of the bill could no longer be under contract with government entities in Iowa to provide technology services. Keith Saunders, a lobbyist for the Iowa Board of Regents and the University of Iowa, said that could mean software that is part of everyday work on campus would be prohibited.

“If Microsoft were found to be in violation of this potential code chapter, it would shut down our email system. It would shut down our phone system,” Saunders said. “Microsoft operating system is the basis of thousands of computers across campus. It is embedded in technology from our utility plant to our hospital to the scoreboard at Kinnick (Stadium). It would literally shut down how we do our business.”

Chris LaFerla, executive director of the Council Bluffs Schools Foundation, said Google has supported the community by helping buy computers for students. He said he opposes the bill because it could compromise future investments.

“I’m asking for you to support Iowans who benefit from having a partner like we have and find a way to support the first amendment without telling these tech companies that Iowa’s not open for their business,” LaFerla said.

The bill advanced to the Senate Commerce Committee and has broad support from Senate Republicans with thirty senators listing their names as bill sponsors. A similar proposal (HSB 235) is under consideration in the House.

Grant Gerlock is a reporter covering Des Moines and central Iowa