Law to Keep Actor Ages Off IMDb "Suppresses Free Speech" (Guest Column)

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Internet Association's Michael Beckerman argues that while Hollywood age discrimination is "a serious issue," the proposed California law would set "a terrible precedent."

Hollywood has a bad actor problem, and it’s not what you might think. Age discrimination present in Hollywood casting today is a serious issue, and it has no place in modern society. The internet industry strongly supports the worthy goal of eliminating such discrimination and unfairness from the casting process. However, recent efforts to scapegoat the internet by passing legislation that will force websites to remove publicly available information about actors sets a terrible precedent and will do nothing to stop the “bad actors” who continue to employ discriminatory tactics in their casting and hiring practices.

Unfortunately, AB 1687, a California bill hailed as the solution to end discrimination in Hollywood, fails to acknowledge this vital distinction. If enacted, the law would seriously undermine some of our most fundamental rights, while doing nothing to eliminate discrimination in casting. For this reason, the internet industry calls on Gov. Jerry Brown to veto AB 1687, which would require websites like IMDb to remove actors' age information from online profiles.

Proponents of the bill, such as SAG-AFTRA president and Beverly Hills, 90210 star Gabrielle Carteris, argue these online databases facilitate age discrimination by thrusting an actor's age in front of casting directors whose biases against older performers dictate who gets hired and who doesn’t.

This argument is problematic for a number of reasons. Requiring the removal of factually accurate age information across websites suppresses free speech. This is not a question of preventing salacious rumors; rather it is about the right to present basic facts that live in the public domain. Displaying such information isn't a form of discrimination, and internet companies should not be punished for how people use public data.

In addition to these immediate harms, permitting unconstitutional limitations on free speech — even in the pursuit of similarly noble intentions — opens up a Pandora's box for more harmful consequences in the future. Currently, the law would target entertainment sites such as IMDb from posting age information about actors. But consider this: If the goal is to prevent discrimination by limiting information, should lawmakers force redactions from any website, even Wikipedia?

Here’s another question: Should other sorts of information be similarly redacted based on the possibility of it being used to discriminate? A broad range of information exists that could inform a discriminatory casting decision, but should we allow the forced suppression of factually accurate information concerning things like filmography, alma mater or perhaps even unflattering film reviews?

If you answer “no” to any of these questions, like I do, you must oppose AB 1687. This slippery slope leads us into the dangerous waters of censorship. Moreover, it sets a legislative precedent for state legislatures looking to solve difficult problems by preventing the free flow of information online. This is not a world that we should aspire to create.

To make matters worse, the bill does not even address the root cause of discrimination. Availability of information does not cause discrimination — human bias does. But even if that weren’t true, this bill only attempts to curtail what information a hand-picked group of websites may publish. Requiring only certain websites to take down age information in response to actors' requests will not solve age discrimination in Hollywood, but it would give websites not covered by the law a competitive advantage over those that are forced to provide less comprehensive information. Were this bill to pass, age information would continue to be available on any number of substitute websites, completely undermining the bill’s intention.

Supporters of the bill may argue the measure is limited to target a specific case of age discrimination in Hollywood, but they cannot have their cake and eat it too. Either censorship is limited to a few websites, making it ineffective, or it must be so comprehensive that it eliminates this information from the public domain entirely, posing unacceptable limits to free speech.

The free flow of information online has been key to the success of the internet, our society and our economy. Internet companies are central to California's economic growth and success.

The entertainment industry similarly is a vital element of our economy and culture, and discrimination in Hollywood must not be tolerated. Unfortunately, those who agree with me on this point will be gravely disappointed by this bill were it to become law, as these insidious hiring practices will not go away. Hollywood must take on the tough and noble task of looking within its environment, culture, and hiring practices that allows such discrimination to occur. Only by starting there can we craft solutions that are both effective and just to this ongoing problem.   

AB 1687 is not the answer. It would severely undermine freedom of speech online, setting a dangerous precedent that could wreak havoc on the internet and chip away at the fundamental rights we hold dear. It is for that reason we urge Governor Jerry Brown to veto AB 1687.

Michael Beckerman is the president and chief executive of the Internet Association, which represents America’s leading internet companies.