In Russia, Government Tells Internet What to Say

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As a general rule, if you’re on the same regulatory page as Russia, you should probably turn the page—if not set fire to it.

But that’s where congressional Democrats find themselves with their calls for more government restrictions of “dangerous misinformation” online. Similarly, some Republicans are channeling their frustration about online removal of too much conservative content into efforts to “punish” Big Tech. Russia’s recent actions against U.S. tech firms should remind both parties what real censorship looks like and make them think twice about starting down a similar path.  

Russia recently fined Google nearly $100 million and Meta, Facebook’s parent company, approximately $27 million for failure to remove content that is illegal in the world’s largest democratic republic (wink, wink). Fines against foreign tech companies are not uncommon in Russia, but these amounts signal an intensification of efforts to quell content critical of the current political regime. It remains to be seen if Russia will act on threats to slow or block certain online services or even expel some Western services from the country. Generally, Russian state intrusion into media affairs and private speech has reached levels not seen since the fall of the Soviet Union.    

While the U.S. is far from that level of incursion, many of the Democrat-introduced congressional proposals to restrict the presence and distribution of information online likely run afoul of First Amendment protections. That should worry Democrats and Republicans alike, as should Republican-led efforts to have unelected bureaucrats at the Federal Trade Commission certify platforms as politically neutral or attempts by state-level GOP politicians to regulate the Internet utility-style, as a common carrier. Both approaches represent major government intrusions into private entities’ property and into the protected speech of U.S. corporations.

One example is Senator Amy Klobuchar’s (D-MN) Health Misinformation Act of 2021. It would remove liability protections for online platforms from third party posts during health emergencies. But the recent flip-flops on mask recommendations, evolving theories on the origin of COVID-19, and ever-changing official safety guidance make clear what a messy task deciding what does and does not qualify as “health misinformation” would be for the federal bureaucracy.  

More generally, a citizenry blessed with the right to elect its own government does not need said government determining what information is true or false. That sacred task should be reserved for the thinking individual via persuasion, debate, and reason. This is nearly the dead opposite of Klobuchar’s government patrol of speech, with the plaintiff’s bar barking at the gates. Liability protection against third party posts for platforms facilitates the free flow of information online. Even when that information isn’t perfect, it’s still better to have more speech than to have government deciding what speech is and is not allowed. After all, it’s often the most controversial speech that’s in most need of defending.

If current efforts from the left to repeal Section 230 are successful, online platforms will still have their First Amendment rights to remove speech they don’t wish to carry. That’s precisely why many on the right have floated the idea of regulating online platforms like common carriers, thus restricting their rights to remove content.

But that sort of regulatory expansion runs counter to the traditional instincts of Republicans to oppose the growth and power of government. Practically speaking, forbidding online platforms from removing any content will lead to overwhelming amounts of spam, pornography, and violent content flooding the Internet; Facebook becoming “Pornbook” is hardly the conservative end-game.

Even though both the left and the right can find fault with the current state of content moderation online, it’s still better to allow the market time to provide solutions and exercise regulatory restraint for fear of violating the First Amendment or chilling innovation. American politicians should leave wielding the iron fist of government to the Russians.