Washington, D.C. — Yesterday and today, the Congressional probe of Russian interference turned to social media as executives from Facebook, Twitter, and Google testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee and back-to-back House and Senate Intelligence Committee hearings.
The following is the statement of Committee for Justice president Curt Levey on how lawmakers are working against — not with — tech companies and the First Amendment:
In crafting a legislative response to Russian interference in our elections via social media, the problem has to be put in perspective. The Russian Facebook ads represents just .004% of what the average Facebook user saw in their newsfeed. Proposed new rules that sweep up an enormous amount of legitimate content published by Americans in an attempt to target a small amount of misinformation posted by Russians would be an overreaction and a significant threat to the future of online free speech.
The legislation that has been proposed would put the burden of enforcement on intermediary service providers such as Facebook, Twitter, and Google. These companies would inevitably adopt a risk-averse approach to free expression on their platforms to avoid liability, necessarily forcing them to limit Americans' free speech as a compliance cost.
At the same time, the proposed legislation would likely fail to stop the Russians or other foreign nations that seek to manipulate our elections. The rules, which would be enforced by the Federal Election Commission, will not serve as an effective deterrent to foreign actors because the reward of influencing U.S. elections is far too great. They will find alternative social media sites or other platforms to continue their meddling. The job of preventing foreign election interference is better suited for counterintelligence efforts.
Moreover, social media companies have already developed internal policies to address this problem. Facebook has announced steps to increase the transparency of political ads and limit foreign influence on its site and is working with the federal government to identify any new foreign threats. Twitter and Google have announced similar steps as well. The best course is to allow these companies to protect the integrity of their own platforms in a way that fits their sites' unique characteristics and can be quickly adjusted as the Russians inevitably shift their tactics.
Raising fears about electoral integrity and national security might be effective for passing legislation, but it often makes for policy which is rushed, over reactive and, in this case, likely a violation of the First Amendment. Lawmakers should think carefully before passing new laws that would restrict the engine of democracy that the Internet has become. Such laws would not only fail to resolve national security concerns, they would also make America more like Russia.