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Free Speech

Suppression of Media Freedom Correlates to the Onset of the Coronavirus Pandemic, Say Panelists



Screenshot from the webinar

November 16, 2020 — The year 2021 will be pivotal for advancing media and press freedom initiatives, due to the converging crises affecting the future of journalism.

According to panelists, there currently persists a media freedom crisis consisting of a geopolitical crisis due to the aggressiveness of authoritarian regimes, a technological crisis due to a lack of democratic securities, a democratic crisis due to polarization and disinformation, a crisis of trust due to a spreading suspicion and even hatred of the media, and an economic crisis impoverishing the quality of journalism.

It was already a challenging time for journalism before the pandemic, yet the onset of the global COVID-19 pandemic resulted in what many have labeled an infodemic, as governments around the world rushed to take control of media communications, with some limiting access to information, at a time when people needed accurate info more than ever before.

Reporters Without Borders’ 2020 World Press Freedom Index finds a clear correlation between governments’ suppression of media freedom in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Nations increased censorship across the globe led Canada and Botswana to co-host the second annual Global Conference for Media Freedom on Monday, which featured the first Ministerial meeting of the Media Freedom Coalition, a coalition of 37 governments committed to working together to advocate for media freedom and the protection of journalists.

Pandemic become an excuse to restrict media freedoms

“In countries which already showed autocratic tendencies, COVID-19 became the perfect excuse to restrict media freedoms,” said Barbara Trionfi, executive director of the International Press Institute. According to a study conducted by IPI, “17 countries worldwide rushed to pass ‘fake news’ emergency laws over the last eight months, essentially handing autocrats new censorship tools.”

In more autocratic states new laws were written permanently into criminal or civil codes, which outlawed all forms of online misinformation, with vaguely defined provisions. Many allow prosecutors to fine journalists for publishing information deemed untrue or threatening by authorities.

“Such laws have created new possibilities for authoritarian leaders, and their law enforcement and judicial systems, to place restrictions on speech that may long outlast the pandemic,” said Trionfi.

“In Senegal and Gambia, journalists have been physically assaulted by security forces for providing information contradicting public officials,” detailed Fatou Jagne, director for Senegal and West Africa at Article 19.

Polarization and truly fake news run rampant in U.S. and Brazil

Meanwhile, in more democratic regions, like Brazil and the United States, increased polarization became a trend, as already divided populaces were divided and isolated, while fake news was permitted to run rampant online.

The year has made one thing clear: a reset in the balance of individuals as rights’ holders and the government as duty-bearers, in terms of promoting media freedom, is necessary.

In an attempt to do just that, all 37 members of the Media Freedom Coalition signed the Global Pledge on Media Freedom, committing the countries to work together on identifying and acting on violations and abuses against members of the press.

As these countries are evidently putting in the brunt of the work to promote internet freedom, much of the day-long conference was spent developing best practices to promote media literacy and freedom of the press, around the globe.

Digital literacy skills in the fight for media freedom

Countless panelists expressed the importance of media literacy skills in the fight for media freedom, asserting the development of critical thinking and media consumption skills has never been more necessary.

Urmas Reinsalu, the minister of foreign affairs of the Republic of Estonia, detailed the country’s efforts to promote internet freedom, as Estonia was one of the first countries that dealt with disinformation from Russia on a coordinated level and consistently ranks among the highest nations in terms of internet freedom.

“We have attempted to tackle the hybrid-warfare tactics coming from Russia through a more socially-holistic approach,” said Minister Reinsalu, informing audiences that media and digital literacy skills are mandated for all Estonian grade-school children.

“The country also has a trusted national news source, which actively attempts to debunk and decode falsified information,” said Reinsalu.

Disinformation and poverty

In addition to media literacy, Craig Silverman, media editor of Buzzfeed News, said it is critical to address the economic drivers to the spread of disinformation.

“We should connect the growing disinformation environment to some fundamental conditions of society, such as poverty, or a lack of ability to connect to other people,” said Silverman.

Many called for international organizations to step up. To these pleas, Irene Khan, United Nation’s Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression, informed that the issue of disinformation must be rephrased as a human rights concern, in order for the UN to get involved.

Khan added that she believes governments should not privatize censorship and give corporations all the say in the matter. “This is a judicial function, not corporate or executive one,” she said.

All panelists agreed that governments have a lot of have room to promote the press and that policymakers must take action to support local news.

“It is part of democracy and it is essential,” said Silverman.

Former Assistant Editor Jericho Casper graduated from the University of Virginia studying media policy. She grew up in Newport News in an area heavily impacted by the digital divide. She has a passion for universal access and a vendetta against anyone who stands in the way of her getting better broadband. She is now Associate Broadband Researcher at the Institute for Local Self Reliance's Community Broadband Network Initiative.

Section 230

Repealing Section 230 Would be Harmful to the Internet As We Know It, Experts Agree

While some advocate for a tightening of language, other experts believe Section 230 should not be touched.



Rep. Ken Buck, R-Colo., speaking on the floor of the House

WASHINGTON, September 17, 2021—Republican representative from Colorado Ken Buck advocated for legislators to “tighten up” the language of Section 230 while preserving the “spirit of the internet” and enhancing competition.

There is common ground in supporting efforts to minimize speech advocating for imminent harm, said Buck, even though he noted that Republican and Democratic critics tend to approach the issue of changing Section 230 from vastly different directions

“Nobody wants a terrorist organization recruiting on the internet or an organization that is calling for violent actions to have access to Facebook,” Buck said. He followed up that statement, however, by stating that the most effective way to combat “bad speech is with good speech” and not by censoring “what one person considers bad speech.”

Antitrust not necessarily the best means to improve competition policy

For companies that are not technically in violation of antitrust policies, improving competition though other means would have to be the answer, said Buck. He pointed to Parler as a social media platform that is an appropriate alternative to Twitter.

Though some Twitter users did flock to Parler, particularly during and around the 2020 election, the newer social media company has a reputation for allowing objectionable content that would otherwise be unable to thrive on social media.

Buck also set himself apart from some of his fellow Republicans—including Donald Trump—by clarifying that he does not want to repeal Section 230.

“I think that repealing Section 230 is a mistake,” he said, “If you repeal section 230 there will be a slew of lawsuits.” Buck explained that without the protections afforded by Section 230, big companies will likely find a way to sufficiently address these lawsuits and the only entities that will be harmed will be the alternative platforms that were meant to serve as competition.

More content moderation needed

Daphne Keller of the Stanford Cyber Policy Center argued that it is in the best interest of social media platforms to enact various forms of content moderation, and address speech that may be legal but objectionable.

“If platforms just hosted everything that users wanted to say online, or even everything that’s legal to say—everything that the First Amendment permits—you would get this sort of cesspool or mosh pit of online speech that most people don’t actually want to see,” she said. “Users would run away and advertisers would run away and we wouldn’t have functioning platforms for civic discourse.”

Even companies like Parler and Gab—which pride themselves on being unyielding bastions of free speech—have begun to engage in content moderation.

“There’s not really a left right divide on whether that’s a good idea, because nobody actually wants nothing but porn and bullying and pro-anorexia content and other dangerous or garbage content all the time on the internet.”

She explained that this is a double-edged sword, because while consumers seem to value some level of moderation, companies moderating their platforms have a huge amount of influence over what their consumers see and say.

What problems do critics of Section 230 want addressed?

Internet Association President and CEO Dane Snowden stated that most of the problems surrounding the Section 230 discussion boil down to a fundamental disagreement over the problems that legislators are trying to solve.

Changing the language of Section 230 would impact not just the tech industry: “[Section 230] impacts ISPs, libraries, and universities,” he said, “Things like self-publishing, crowdsourcing, Wikipedia, how-to videos—all those things are impacted by any kind of significant neutering of Section 230.”

Section 230 was created to give users the ability and security to create content online without fear of legal reprisals, he said.

Another significant supporter of the status quo was Chamber of Progress CEO Adam Kovacevich.

“I don’t think Section 230 needs to be fixed. I think it needs [a better] publicist.” Kovacevich stated that policymakers need to gain a better appreciation for Section 230, “If you took away 230 You would have you’d give companies two bad options: either turn into Disneyland or turn into a wasteland.”

“Either turn into a very highly curated experience where only certain people have the ability to post content, or turn into a wasteland where essentially anything goes because a company fears legal liability,” Kovacevich said.

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Section 230

Judge Rules Exemption Exists in Section 230 for Twitter FOSTA Case

Latest lawsuit illustrates the increasing fragility of Section 230 legal protections.



Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey.

August 24, 2021—A California court has allowed a lawsuit to commence against Twitter from two victims of sexual trafficking, who allege the social media company initially refused to remove content that exploited the underaged plaintiffs – and then went viral.

The anonymous plaintiffs allege that they were manipulated into making pornographic videos of themselves through another social media app, Snapchat, after which the videos were posted on Twitter. When the plaintiffs asked Twitter to take down the posts, it refused, and it was only after the Department of Homeland Security got involved that the social media company complied.

At issue in the case is whether Twitter had any obligation to remove the content at least “immediately” under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which provides legal liability protections for the content the platforms’ users post.

Court’s finding

The court ruled Thursday that the case should proceed after finding that Twitter knowingly knew such content was on the site, had to have known it was sex trafficking, and refused to do something about it immediately.

“The Court finds that these allegations are sufficient to allege an ongoing pattern of conduct amounting to a tacit agreement with the perpetrators in this case to allow them to post videos and photographs it knew or should have known were related to sex trafficking without blocking their accounts or the Videos,” the decision read.

“In sum, the Court finds that Plaintiffs have stated a claim for civil liability under the [Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act] on the basis of beneficiary liability and that the claim falls within the exemption to Section 230 immunity created by FOSTA.”

The Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act and the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act that became the package law SESTA-FOSTA was passed in 2018 and amended immunity claims under Section 230 to exclude enforcement of federal or state sex trafficking laws from intermediary protections.

The court dismissed other claims against the company made by the plaintiffs, but met the relatively low bar to move the case forward.

The arguments

The plaintiffs allege that Twitter violated the TVPRA because it allegedly knew about the videos, benefitted from them and did nothing to address the problem before it went viral.

Twitter argued that FOSTA, as applied to the CDA, only narrowly applies to websites that are “knowingly assisting and profiting from reprehensible crimes;” the plaintiffs allegedly fail to show that the company “affirmatively participated” in such crimes; and the company cannot be held liable “simply because it did not take the videos down immediately.”

Experts asserted companies may hesitate to bring Section 230 defense in court

The case is yet another instance of U.S. courts increasingly poking holes in arguments brought by technology companies that suggests they cannot be liable for content on their platforms, per Section 230, which is currently the subject of hot debate in Washington about whether to reform it or completely abolish it.

A number of state judges have ruled against Amazon, for example, and its Section 230 defense in a number of case-specific instances in Texas and California. Experts on a panel in May said if courts keep ruling against the defense, there may be a deluge of lawsuits to come against companies.

And last month, citing some of these cases, lawyers argued that big tech companies may begin to shy away from bringing the 230 defense to court in fear of awakening lawmakers to changing legal views on the provision that could ignite its reform.

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Section 230

Facebook, Google, Twitter Register to Lobby Congress on Section 230

Companies also want to discuss cybersecurity, net neutrality, taxes and privacy.



Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg

August 3, 2021 — The largest social media companies have registered to lobby Congress on Section 230, according to lobby records.

Facebook, Google, and Twitter filed new paperwork late last month to discuss the internet liability provision under the Communications Decency Act, which protects these companies from legal trouble for content their users post.

Facebook’s registration specifically mentions the Safe Tech Act, an amendment to the provision proposed earlier this year by Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, Mark Warner, D-Virginia, and Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, which would largely keep the provision’s protections except for content the platforms are paid for.

A separate Facebook registration included discussion on the “repeal” of the provision.

Other issues included in the Menlo Park-based company’s registration are privacy, data security, online advertising, and general regulations on the social media industry.

Google also wants to discuss taxes and cybersecurity, as security issues take center stage following high-profile attacks and as international proposals for a new tax regime on tech companies emerge.

Notable additional subject matters Twitter includes in its registration are content moderation practices, data security, misinformation, and net neutrality, as the Federal Communications Commission is being urged to bring back Obama-era policies friendly to the principle that ensures content cannot be given preferential treatment on networks.

Section 230 has gripped Congress

Social media critics have been foaming at the mouth over possible retaliatory measures against the technology companies that have taken increasingly strong measures against those that violate its policies.

Those discussions picked up steam when, at the beginning of the year, former President Donald Trump was banned from Twitter, and then from Facebook and other platforms, for allegedly stoking the Capitol Hill riot on January 6. (Trump has since filed a lawsuit as a private citizen against the social media giants for his removal.)

Since the Capitol riot, a number of proposals have been put forward to amend — in some cases completely repeal — the provision to address what some Republicans are calling outright censorship by social media companies. Even Florida tried to take matters into its own hands when it made law rules that penalized social media companies that banned politicians. That law has since been put on hold by the courts.

The social media giants, and its allies in the industry, have pressed the importance of the provision, which they say have allowed once-fledgling companies like Facebook to be what it is today. And some representatives think reform of the law could lean more toward amendment than outright repeal. But lawyers have warned about a shift in attitude toward those liability protections, as more judges in courts across the country hold big technology companies accountable for harm caused by the platforms.

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