Almost No One Digs Josh Hawley’s Internet Censorship Proposal, Thank Goodness

Swift blowback against new measure to make the internet “politically neutral.” New legislation proposed by freshman Republican Sen. Josh Hawley (Mo.) on Wednesday is getting roundly panned by both his Republican and Democrat colleagues. That comes in addition to the beating it’s been taking from tech policy scholars, constitutional lawyers, and the general press. Meanwhile, most of the folks sticking up for Hawley’s plan seem to profoundly misunderstand the current state of online speech regulation, how Hawley’s plan (and similar proposals) would change it, or both.

In a nutshell, Hawley’s bill would require popular internet companies to be politically “neutral”and to get certified as such every two years by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC)or else face massive civil and criminal legal liability.

“This legislation is a sweetheart deal for Big Government,” said Rep. Justin Amash (R–Mich.) in a Twitter response. “It empowers the one entity that should have no say over our speech to regulate and influence what we say online.”

Joshua Wright, a former commissioner with the FTC and current law professor at George Washington University, deconstructs specific sections of the Hawley legislation in this thread. Overall, “a ‘Fairness Doctrine’ for the internet is a bad idea,” tweeted Wright. “And the bill quite literally injects a board of bureaucrats into millions of decisions about internet content. This is central planning. Full stop.”

Wright notes that “the bill asks the FTC to determine when social media platform moderation decisions are ‘designed to or intend’ to negatively impact a political party. Or when they have a ‘disproportionate impact’ on a party.” But “no FTC Commissioner is expert in assessing the design or intent of algorithmic decisions over content. Much less their disproportionate impact—compared to what? The impact of some hypothetically neutral moderation?”

Hawley’s bill “is wacky in a dozen little ways and in one huge way: It assumes there is such a thing as ‘political neutrality’ and that the FTC can define and enforce what that is,” tweeted Daphne Keller, director of Stanford’s Center for Internet and Society.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D–Ore.)original author of Section 230, the federal law Hawley (and authoritarians on both sides) are determined to killalso offers a good thread critiquing the bill:

Wyden also slammed Hawley for gravely misrepresenting current federal law and tech policy. It seems like Hawley’s office “hasn’t even read the statute he’s trying to change,” tweeted Wyden, who went on to explain:

Nothing in Section 230 shields companies for making illegal posts, or from violations of federal criminal law.

CDA 230 lets private companies take down inappropriate third-party posts without incurring liability. It’s designed to protect companies from floods of lawsuits, the sort that kill innovation in its infancy. Republicans used to fight tooth and nail for these protections.

But these days, Trump’s Republican party seems to believe that lawyers and bureaucrats should tell private companies how to make clearly private business decisions. The drive by Republicans to eliminate the autonomy of large private firms is extremely disturbing.

Disturbing might be too light a word for it; Republicans in 2019 are down-the-rabbit-hole levels of disorienting on this topic.

After fighting for freedom of association and against forcing private entrepreneurs to violate their consciences when it comes to bakers/florists/etc. and same-sex weddings, they’ve given up any pretense that that crusade was grounded in universal rights by failing to apply these same constitutional imperatives to businesses and speech that they don’t like.

Hawley stans say it’s different because Twitter and Facebook are bigger than Masterpiece Cakeshop. That’s not a hook I would want to hang my religious liberty or freedom of expression on. By that logic, it’s just fine to force evangelical Christian entrepreneurs to affirmatively participate in gay wedding ceremonies, bake “Happy Abortion!” cakes, provide “free” birth control to employees, and broadcast the messages of Satanists if those religious entrepreneurs create large, successful companies.

I don’t know about you, but I would prefer not to condition my constitutional rights (or yours) on size and popularity.


FOLLOWUP

Immigration authorities clarified the president’s Tuesday tweets warning of a new national crackdown. “The acting director of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency said on Wednesday that he would follow through with plans to send agents into communities to round up and deport undocumented families, in the Trump administration’s latest attempt to deter large-scale migration of Central Americans to the southwest border,” The New York Times reports. More here.


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