Jun 4, 2020

Do Our Leaders Believe in Free Speech and Online Freedom Anymore?

Trump’s recent executive order regulating social media betrays core conservative principles
Adam Thierer Senior Research Fellow , Connor Haaland Staff Writer

A major policy battle has developed regarding the wisdom of regulating social media platforms in the United States, with the internet’s most important law potentially in the crosshairs. Leaders in both major parties are calling for sweeping regulation. 

Specifically, President Trump and his presumptive opponent in the coming presidential election, former Vice President Joe Biden, have both called for “Section 230” of the Communications Decency Act to be repealed. Last week, the president took a misguided step in this direction by signing an executive order that, if fully carried out, will result in significantly greater regulation of the internet and of speech. 

A Growing Call to Regulate Internet Platforms

The ramifications of these threats and steps could not be more profound. Without Section 230—also known as “the 26 words that created the internet”—we would have a much less advanced internet ecosystem. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Wikipedia would have never grown as quickly. Indeed, the repeal of Section 230 means many fewer jobs, less information distribution, and, frankly, less joy. 

Shockingly, by backing Trump’s recent push for regulating these internet platforms, many conservatives are betraying their own principles—the ones that support freedom of expression and the ability to run private businesses without government interference.

Section 230 limits the liability online intermediaries face for the content and communications that travel over their networks. The immunities granted by Section 230 let online speech and commerce flow freely, without the constant threat of legal action or onerous liability looming overhead for digital platforms. To put it another way, without this provision, today’s vibrant internet ecosystem likely would not exist.

For completely different reasons, however, Biden and Trump want it axed. “Section 230 should be revoked, immediately should be revoked, number one. For [Facebook CEO Mark] Zuckerberg and other platforms,” said Biden in a New York Times interview. Like many other Democrats, Biden wants social media platforms to do far more to block speech they find to be offensive in various ways. If they fail to do more, Biden and other Democrats want Sec. 230 revised or repealed. 

In contrast, Trump and his allies want these same platforms to do far less to curate content. Although lacking any empirical evidence, they allege that massive anti-conservative bias exists across today’s most popular platforms. As a result, they want Sec. 230 gutted. “Repeal 230,” said Trump in a tweet. Tensions reached a boiling point last week following a public fight between the president and Twitter after the social networking platform on May 27 added a fact-check notice to one of the president’s tweets about the supposed dangers of mail-in voting.

Retaliating Against Social Media

On May 28, Trump struck back against Twitter by signing an executive order on “preventing online censorship.” The EO cited Twitter six times but also went after Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube by name. Paradoxically, it also noted that the “freedom to express and debate ideas is the foundation for all of our rights as a free people,” even though the order will result in arbitrary government rule over our free speech rights. 

Indeed, Trump's executive order runs afoul of traditional conservative principles in several ways:

  1. It expands the power of the government by delegating more authority to the administrative state and expanding arbitrary bureaucratic rule and regulatory abuse. It encourages the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Federal Trade Commission to take a more active interest in content policy decisions, which is of dubious legality. Section 3 of the EO also says the Department of Justice “shall review the viewpoint-based speech restrictions imposed by each online platform identified in the report … and assess whether any online platforms are problematic vehicles for government speech due to viewpoint discrimination, deception to consumers, or other bad practices.” (emphasis added)

    What do other bad practices entail, and who in the government gets to make the call? It is not prudent to delegate authority over something as sacred as our rights to free speech to unelected government bureaucrats. Such power will stifle civil discourse and increase the possibility for special interests to co-opt the government by using its power for their own desires.

  2. It undermines property rights of private companies by letting Big Government dictate how they use their business platforms. Carrying out the president’s executive order would amount to a taking of private property by the government, an action that conservatives have historically loathed. Our Founding Fathers considered property rights to be the cornerstone of a free and just society, yet Trump pays that fact little respect in this EO, running afoul of a centuries-old American tradition.

  3. It will encourage frivolous lawsuits. By gutting Sec. 230, a law that protects online platforms from punishing liability for third-party speech, Trump's EO would empower trial lawyers. We are already too litigious a country, filing over 80 million cases in state courts every year, and we do not need another reason to be in the courtroom. Repealing 230 would open the floodgates to endless lawsuits about online speech and clog up our judicial system, using resources that could be directed to more important matters.

  4. It undermines free speech and would likely hurt conservative voices most. Trump's executive order makes a mockery of the First Amendment by applying the Fairness Doctrine and net neutrality notions to social media, regulations that conservatives have vociferously opposed. A recent lawsuit filed by the Center for Democracy and Technology that seeks to challenge the EO alleges this exact point, saying it could chill free speech. In the past we have seen such concepts applied arbitrarily, harming free speech and media competition.

    For instance, our colleague Brent Skorup, has written on how the FCC exploited another arbitrary rule—the “public interest” standard. He points to the fact that a documentary portraying former Sen. John Kerry in a negative light was taken off the air thanks to the authority of the public interest standard as a paradigmatic example of how arbitrary regulatory power can harm free speech.

    The EO also undermines platforms that have greatly amplified conservative voices in recent years. On Facebook, for instance, 7 of the top 10 most cited news outlets were conservative. Meanwhile, Trump and other conservative leaders have tapped the power of Twitter to directly communicate with their base. The EO would therefore likely result in much conservative content being removed quickly to avoid legal hassles with regulators or the courts.

  5. The combined effect of all these other factors will undermine the global competitiveness of US-based firms, potentially benefiting Chinese internet companies the most. Willingly giving up a comparative advantage would be foolish, considering how America’s tech companies are the envy of the world. Not only does the EO affect existing social platforms, but it could stifle innovation throughout the digital economy moving forward. Who wants to try and innovate in a field that is subject to regulations that can change on a president’s whim?

  6. It could be used by future politicians against conservative platforms, like Fox News and other right-leaning outlets. This is clearly not the intent of Trump’s executive order, but that will eventually be the result nonetheless. Going forward, we will have different presidents with different political outlooks. When making laws, regulations, and executive orders, it is always important to consider how they could be applied by successive administrations with opposite political and ideological stripes.

Today’s social media platforms are not perfect, but it is impossible for them to please everyone. There is no Goldilocks formula whereby they can get speech policies just right and make everyone happy. Instead, the ideal policy for speech platforms is: Let a thousand flowers bloom. One-size-fits-all content management and community standards shouldn't be the goal. We need diverse platforms and approaches for a diverse citizenry. 

But when presidential candidates and their allies line up in support of repealing Sec. 230 and opening the door to speech controls, the end result will be homogenized conformity with the will of those in power. That’s a horrible result for a nation that values diversity of opinion and freedom of speech, and it will only end up hurting those who seek to change the conversation.

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