By Patrick McGreevy
Los Angeles Times
SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Alarmed by a trend of people livestreaming violent crimes, a California state senator proposed Tuesday to require social media websites including Facebook and YouTube to remove photographs and videos of crimes posted by alleged perpetrators when a request is made by victims.
State Sen. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, believes the bill would be the first of its kind in the U.S. Last August, Pan was allegedly shoved by a man who opposed his legislation to toughen vaccine requirements for schoolchildren, Senate Bill 276, which was later signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom. The alleged perpetrator was cited on suspicion of assault by the Sacramento Police Department after he livestreamed the confrontation on his Facebook page; it remains on the page, even though Pan has asked the company to remove the video.
“Perpetrators of violence know that the more shocking and violent their crime is, the more likely they are to go viral,” said Pan, a pediatrician. “We cannot allow the perpetrators of violence to use social media platforms to personally benefit from the violence and criminal activity they committed.”
The senator cited a series of recent crimes that were livestreamed and drew large internet audiences, including an incident last Thursday in Montgomery, Alabama, in which a man was shot to death while streaming a Facebook Live video.
“By last Saturday, the video had been viewed more than 377,000 times with 10,200 shares,” Pan said.
Under Senate Bill 890, social media companies would face civil fines of $1,000 for each day the photo or video is not removed following a request from a crime victim.
Pan’s proposal drew concerns Tuesday that it would violate constitutional rights to free speech and due process.
“I understand his motivation for doing this given his own personal experience, but the bill is really problematic,” said David Greene, civil liberties director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit organization that advocates for civil liberties in the digital world. “It’s barred by federal law because it’s imposing liability on an internet platform for user content, which is something that is preempted by federal law.”
Green said video content can be “protected speech” and could include newsworthy information that is in the public interest.
Some Republican lawmakers share Greene’s concerns, according to one top aide, who said that while the bill relies on a crime being committed, the demand for immediate action could mean there would not be time for a court to decide whether the law was violated in the video.
The legislation does not currently specify which crimes it pertains to, but Pan’s office said the bill is intended to apply only to violent crime.
Facebook officials declined to comment Tuesday on the legislation, but acknowledged after a 2017 incident that the issue is one they are grappling with.
In that case, a video of a Cleveland man shooting an elderly man at close range was livestreamed on Facebook after the alleged perpetrator posted a video indicating he planned to kill someone. Pan said it took Facebook nearly two hours to disable the person’s account after the first video was reported.
At the time, Facebook’s vice president of global operations, Justin Osofsky, issued a statement saying the company could do better in responding to such incidents.
“As a result of this terrible series of events, we are reviewing our reporting flows to be sure people can report videos and other material that violates our standards as easily and quickly as possible,” he said.
Pan said his proposal follows the lead of Australia, where legislation was approved last year to require social media companies to “expeditiously” remove violent postings.
The California bill is supported by the advocacy group Crime Victims United of California, said its president, Nina Salarno.
“We cannot allow social media websites to be used as a tool to further harm victims and their families,” Salarno said. “While social media companies grapple with how to combat the streaming of violent crimes, protections need to be in place to ensure the rights of victims are respected.”