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Free Speech

American University President and New America CEO Seek to Clip Edges of America’s Free Speech ‘Absolutism’

Adrienne Patton

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Photo of Sylvia Burwell and Anne-Marie Slaughter discussing tech and free speech by Adrienne Patton

WASHINGTON, February 25, 2020 – Two high-profile panelists, including the president of American University and the CEO of the New America think tank, took issue with America’s free-wheeling freedom of speech tradition at a Monday event.

American University President Sylvia M. Burwell and New America CEO Anne-Marie Slaughter grappled with the negative consequences of technology and the strain created by freedom of speech at the university’s Washington College of Law. Burwell suggested that along with the negative effects of internet usage, American values are at stake, showing that harmful internet speech is “embedded in the larger issues.”

Slaughter said that companies are now the face of American values and they are not “universally favored.”

Although both panelists agreed that freedom of expression is crucial to the United States’ democracy, technology has drastically changed the landscape of free speech.

There are “four things that change the dynamic” of freedom of expression through technology: speed, amplification, removal of nuance, and speed of response, said Burwell.

Burwell said that there is a need for better education, something she is trying to implement on the American University campus through specific courses.

Burwell said that students need to get the “facts before [they] use [their] voice”—thereby fostering civil discourse instead of disinformation.

At this point, this isn’t a “cut and dry free speech issue,” said Slaughter.

Slaughter said that America’s “absolutist free speech tradition” no longer holds in this new technological terrain.

When asked by the audience what greater accountability for tech companies might look like, Slaughter said that the United States needs a “legal framework.” Burwell agreed that the U.S. needs a new “legal and policy construct.”

Facebook is the “largest country in the world,” said Slaughter. The U.S. needs to recognize that Facebook occupies public and private sectors, said Slaughter.

The moderator asked how the panelists can distinguish between novel situations brought about by tech and patterned consequences from innovation. Slaughter said the creation of new technology and the realization that it has harmful consequences is not new, like the role of technology in World War I mass killing, said Slaughter.

What is new is the lack of personalization, “particularly in a world where there is less community than ever before,” stated Slaughter.

However, other panelists at the event argued that “obnoxious” speech is not unprecedented in America.

For example, American University School of Communication Professor W. Joseph Campbell argued that “obnoxious speech” can be traced back through American history.

Campbell said the close of the 19th century was the “proto-twitter” world. He said he does not consider the age of harsh political rhetoric unique to the 21st century.

University of British Columbia Assistant Professor Heidi Tworek said she notices a “nostalgia” for the eras “before the internet.” From a history perspective, Tworek said the past also exhibits stretched boundaries of free speech; this isn’t a modern phenomenon.

“The present can sometimes catch up with history,” argued Tworek.

Adrienne Patton was a Reporter for Broadband Breakfast. She studied English rhetoric and writing at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. She grew up in a household of journalists in South Florida. Her father, the late Robes Patton, was a sports writer for the Sun-Sentinel who covered the Miami Heat, and is for whom the press lounge in the American Airlines Arena is named.

Courts

Supreme Court Declares Trump First Amendment Case Moot, But Legal Issues For Social Media Coming

Benjamin Kahn

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Photo of Justice Clarence Thomas in April 2017 by Preston Keres in the public domain

April 5, 2021—Despite accepting a petition that avoids the Supreme Court deliberating on whether a president can block social media users, Justice Clarence Thomas on Monday issued a volley that may foreshadow future legal issues surrounding social media in the United States.

On Monday, the Supreme Court sent back to a lower court and ruled as moot a lawsuit over whether former President Donald Trump could block followers on Twitter, after accepting a petition by the federal government to end the case because Trump wasn’t president anymore.

The case dates back to March 2018, when the Knight First Amendment Institute and others brought a case against former president Trump in the Southern District of New York for blocking users based on their political views, arguing the practice is a violation of the first amendment.

The lower court judge agreed, and the decision was upheld by the United States Court of Appeals.

In accepting the petition by the government, Justice Thomas stated that adjudicating legal issues surrounding digital platforms is uniquely difficult. “Applying old doctrines to new digital platforms is rarely straightforward,” he wrote. The case in question hinged on the constitutionality of then-President Trump banning people from interacting with his Twitter account, which the plaintiff argued was a protected public forum.

Thomas stated that while today’s conclusion was able to be vacated, that likely would not be the case in the future. He went on to say that digital platforms exercise “concentrated control of so much speech in the hands of a few private parties.”

He continued: “We will soon have no choice but to address how our legal doctrines apply to highly concentrated, privately owned information infrastructure such as digital platforms.”

Even though Facebook and Google were not the platforms in question in this case, Thomas pointed to them as “dominant digital platforms” and stated that they have “enormous control over speech.” He stated that Google, Facebook, and Twitter have the capabilities to suppress information and speech at will, and referenced the “cataclysmic consequences” for authors that Amazon disagrees with.

Thomas also rejected the notion that other options exist.

“A person always could choose to avoid the toll bridge or train and instead swim the Charles River or hike the Oregon Trail. But in assessing whether a company exercises substantial market power, what matters is whether the alternatives are comparable.”

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Section 230

Sen. Mike Lee Promotes Bills Valuing Federal Spectrum, Requiring Content Moderation Disclosures

Tim White

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Screenshot of Mike Lee taken from Silicon Slopes event

April 5, 2021 – Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, said Friday spectrum used by federal agencies is not being utilized efficiently, following legislation he introduced early last year that would evaluate the allocation and value of federally-reserved spectrum.

The Government Spectrum Valuation Act, or S.553 and introduced March 3, directs the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to consult with the Federal Communications Commission and Office of Management and Budget to estimate the value of spectrum between 3 kilohertz and 95 gigahertz that is assigned to federal agencies.

Lee spoke at an event hosted by the Utah tech association Silicon Slopes on Friday about the legislation, in addition to other topics, including Section 230.

Some bands on the spectrum are reserved for federal agencies as they need it, but it’s not always managed efficiently, Lee said. Some are used by the Department of Defense for ‘national security,’ for example, but when asked what that spectrum is used for, we’re told, ‘we can’t tell you because of national security,’ he said.

“Just about everything we do on the internet is carried out through a mobile device, and all of that requires access to spectrum,” he said.

He said that lives are becoming more affected and enhanced by our connection to the internet, often through a wireless connection, which is increasing the need for the government to efficiently manage spectrum bandwidth, he said. Some of the bands are highly valuable, he said, comparing them to the “beach front property” of spectrum.

Legislation changing Section 230

Lee also spoke on Section 230, a statute that protects online companies from liability for content posted by their users. It’s a hot topic for policymakers right now as they consider regulating social media platforms.

Both Republicans and Democrats want more regulation for tech companies, but for different reasons. Democrats want more moderation against alleged hate speech or other content, citing the January 6 riot at the Capitol as one example of not enough censorship. Republicans on the other hand, including Lee, allege social media companies censor or remove right-leaning political content but do not hold the same standard for left-leaning content.

Lee highlighted that platforms have the right to be as politically-biased as they want, but it’s a problem when their terms of service or CEOs publicly state they are neutral, but then moderate content from a non-neutral standpoint, he said.

Lee expressed hesitation about repealing or changing Section 230. “If you just repealed it altogether, it would give, in my view, an undo advantage to big market incumbents,” he said. One solution is supplementing Section 230 with additional clarifying language or new legislation, he said.

That’s why he came up with the Promise Act, legislation he introduced on February 24 that would require the disclosure of rules for content moderation, and permit the Federal Trade Commission to take corrective action against companies who violate those disclosed rules. “I don’t mean it to be an exclusive solution, but I think it is a reasonably achievable step toward some type of sanity in this area,” he said.

Senator Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and a couple of her colleagues also drafted Section 230 legislation that would maintain the spirit of the liability provision, but would remove it for paid content.

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Section 230

Pressed by Congress, Big Tech Defends Itself and Offers Few Solutions After Capitol Riot

Tim White

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Photo of Google CEO Sundar Pichai from a December 2018 hearing before the House Judiciary Committee by Drew Clark

March 26, 2021 – The heads of the largest social media companies largely defended their platforms, reiterated what they’ve done, and offered few solutions to the problems that ail them during a congressional hearing Thursday.

But, under harsh questioning from the House Energy and Commerce Committee, none of the CEOs of Google, Facebook or Twitter were given chance to respond to questions for more than 30 to 60 seconds on a given topic.

The hearing was about misinformation on social media in the fallout of the January 6 Capitol riot. The CEOs said dealing with the problem of dis- and misinformation on their platforms is more difficult than people think.

“The responsibility here lies with the people who took the actions to break the law and do the insurrection,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in response to a question about whether the platforms were to blame for the riot.

“Secondarily, also, the people who spread that content, including the president, but others as well, with repeated rhetoric over time, saying that the election was rigged and encouraging people to organize. I think those people bare the primary responsibility as well,” Zuckerberg said.

Zuckerberg added that “polarization was rising in America long before social networks were even invented,” he said. He blamed the “political and media environment that drives Americans apart.”

A ‘complex question’ of fault

Google CEO Sundar Pichai said it’s a “complex question” in response to the question of who’s at fault for the riot. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, however, was more direct: “Yes, but you also have to take into consideration a broader ecosystem; it’s not just about the technology platforms we use,” he said.

It was the first time Zuckerberg, Dorsey and Pichai appeared on Capitol Hill since the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. The hearing was spurred by the riot and the turbulent presidential election that concluded in Joe Biden’s win and Donald Trump’s ban from Twitter and Facebook. Congress has turned their eye toward the social media companies for several months on possible Section 230 reform to address the alleged problems in the tech industry.

“Our nation is drowning in misinformation driven by social media. Platforms that were once used to share kids with grandparents are all-too-often havens of hate, harassment and division,” said Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Penn., chairman of the Communications and Technology subcommittee, who led the hearing. Doyle alleged the platforms “supercharged” the riot.

Both Democratic and Republican members of the committee laid out a variety of grievances during the five-hour meeting, and while they didn’t all share the same concerns, all agreed that something needs to be done.

“I hope you can take away from this hearing how serious we are, on both sides of the aisle, to see many of these issues that trouble Americans addressed,” Doyle said.

Congressional concerns

On the left side of the political aisle the main criticism against the tech giants was the spread of misinformation and extremism, including COVID-19 vaccines, climate change and the 2020 presidential election that Trump alleged was rigged against him.

“It is not an exaggeration to say that your companies have fundamentally and permanently transformed our very culture, and our understanding of the world,” said Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Illinois. “Much of this is for good, but it is also true that our country, our democracy, even our understanding of what is ‘truth’ has been harmed by the proliferation and dissemination of misinformation and extremism,” she said.

“Unfortunately, this disinformation and extremism doesn’t just stay online, it has real-world, often dangerous and even violent consequences, and the time has come to hold online platforms accountable,” said Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J.

From the right, Republican members voiced concerns about too much censorship, easy access to opioids, and the harm on children they said social media has.

“I’m deeply concerned by your decisions to operate your companies in a vague and biased manner, with little to no accountability, while using Section 230 as a shield for your actions and their real-world consequences,” said Rep. Bob Latta, R-Ohio. “Your companies had the power to silence the president of the United States, shut off legitimate journalism in Australia, shut down legitimate scientific debate on a variety of issues, dictate which articles or websites are seen by Americans when they search the internet,” he said.

“Your platforms are my biggest fear as a parent,” said Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Washington, expressing frustration over the impact that social media has on children. “It’s a battle for their development, a battle for their mental health, and ultimately, a battle for their safety,” she said, citing a rise of teen suicides since 2011. “I do not want you defining what is true for them, I do not want their future manipulated by your algorithms,” she said.

Platforms say it’s challenging, reiterate initiatives

In response to the many criticisms, Zuckerberg made it clear that while moderating content is central to address misinformation, it is important to protect speech as much as possible while taking down illegal content, which he said can be a huge challenge. As an example, bullying hurts the victim but there’s not a clear line where we can just censor speech, he said.

Pichai said that Google’s mission is about organizing and delivering information to the world and allowing free expression while also combatting misinformation. But it’s an evolving challenge, he said, because approximately 15 percent of google searches each day are new, and 500 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute. To reinforce that point, he cited the fact that 18 months ago no one had heard of COVID-19, and in 2020 ‘coronavirus’ was the most trending search.

Dorsey expressed a similar sentiment about the evolving challenge of balancing freedom of expression with content moderation. “We observe what’s happening on our service, we work to understand the ramifications, and we use that understanding to strengthen our operations. We push ourselves to improve based on the best information we have,” he said.

The best way to face new challenges is to narrow down the problem to have the greatest impact, Dorsey said. For example, disinformation is a broad concept, and we focused on disinformation leading to offline harm, he said. Twitter worked on three specific categories, he said, these included manipulated media, public health and civic integrity.

“Ultimately, we’re running a business, and a business wants to grow the number of customers it serves. Enforcing a policy is a business decision,” Dorsey said.

Dorsey noted Twitter’s new Bluesky project, a decentralized internet protocol that various social media companies would be able to utilize, rather than being owned by a single company. It will improve the social media environment by increasing innovation around business models, recommended algorithms, and moderation controls in the hands of individuals instead of private companies, he said. But others already working in a similar technology space say the project is not without its problems.

On Section 230 reform

On the question of changing Section 230 of the Telecommunications Act, which grants social media companies immunity from liability for user-generated content, Zuckerberg suggested two specific changes: Platforms need to issue transparency reports about harmful content, and need better moderation for content that is clearly illegal. These changes should only affect large social media platforms, he said, but did not specify the difference between a large and small platform.

Dorsey said those may be good ideas, but it could be difficult to determine what is a large and small platform, and having those stipulations may incentivize the wrong things.

When asked about Instagram’s new version for children, Zuckerberg confirmed it was in the planning stage and many details were still being worked out.

Several Democrats raised concerns about minority populations, citing as one example the March 16 shooting in Atlanta that killed eight people including several Asian American women. Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Cal., asked why various hashtags such as #kungflu and #chinavirus were not removed from Twitter.

Dorsey responded that Twitter does take action against hate speech, but it can also be a challenge because it’s not always simple to distinguish between content that supports an idea and counter speech that condemns the support of that idea.

The tech leaders were asked by multiple members about the platform algorithms failing to catch specific instances of content moderation. Democrats referred to examples of posts containing misinformation or hate speech, while Republicans used examples of conservative-based content being removed.

Both Zuckerberg and Dorsey said that their systems are not perfect and it’s not realistic to expect perfection. Some content will always slip by our radars that we have to address individually, Zuckerberg said.

In response to Rep. Steve Scalise’s reference to a 2020 New York Post story about Hunter Biden that was taken down, Dorsey said we have made mistakes in some instances.

Editor’s Note: This story has been revised to add in a second paragraph that more accurately captured the fact that, while the tech executives offered few solutions, they were given little opportunity to do so by members of Congress. Additionally, the word “secondarily” was added back into Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s statement about who bore responsibility for the insurrection.

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