House Republicans this week approved a poorly drafted and self-aggrandizing "anti-censorship" bill that would bar federal agencies from pressuring tech companies to pressure conservatives. The bill, inspired in part by Republican outrage over Twitter's handling of Hunter Biden's laptop story and other so-called revelations about Twitter files, passed by a vote of 219 to 206. The bill is almost certain to die in the Senate controlled by Democrats.
As written, the Protection Against Government Interference with Expression Act would "prohibit federal employees from advocating for the censorship of views within their statutory authority." The language appears to be directly inspired by a recent filing from the Twitter Files, which proposed that Democrats and Republicans should report to Twitter and remove tweets that allegedly violate the company's rules. Republicans argue that Democratic officials have used it to put disproportionate pressure on allegedly left-leaning tech companies to censor conservative ideas or issues. Unfortunately, a former expert on Twitter's security policy team says former President Donald Trump used the same political tactics to convince Twitter to remove Chrissy Teigen's tweet, calling her a "butt." Republicans clearly love free speech.
How will the new tech censorship laws work?
House Oversight and Accountability Chairman James Comer, the bill's lead author, said the proposal would expand the 1939 Hatchery Act, which prohibited federal employees from engaging in political activity, registering with federal agencies that sought the approval or promotion of censorship. . Officials found guilty of violating the restrictions could risk losing their jobs or face civil penalties of up to $US10,000 ($13,882). The bill would also prohibit officials from promoting or encouraging "the addition of disclaimers, disclaimers or other warnings" to user posts. The provision appears to be the direct target of another misinformation and fact-checking tag that the social media company has launched in recent years, namely Twitter's Community Notes feature.
"President Joe Biden and his administration are with the censors," Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman McMorris Rodger said in a statement after the vote. "They are actively silencing the American voice to control the narrative that supports their political agenda."
Republicans believe the extension could prevent a repeat of Twitter's handling of the Hunter Biden laptop story, but that's not necessarily true. At a hearing last month, Roth, Twitter's former head of trust and security, said Twitter makes moderate decisions independently, even when government officials speak up. Government calls to shut down social media companies are also nothing new. In fact, for more than a decade, Twitter has regularly published transparency reports showing the number and type of takedown requests the company has received from government officials around the world.
Wait, what about the First Amendment?
While one might be inclined to agree to the bill because of its benefits (you probably shouldn't), opponents say it's not necessary. In a hearing before the vote, Democratic Representative Daniel Goldman of New York said the protections the law sought were already included in the First Amendment.
"This law is designed to protect free speech from government censorship," Goldman said Wednesday. "And I agree, that's a great idea. In fact, it's a very good idea that the Founding Fathers put in the Constitution. It's called the First Amendment.
Others, like Democratic Representative Greg Landsman of Ohio, fear the law will make it harder to detect and remove disinformation posts that attempt to spread foreign propaganda. Jesse Lehrich, co-founder of technology advocacy group Reportable Tech, said the GOP bill addresses issues previously raised with First Amendment speech rights.
"While I respect House Republicans' desire to protect Chrissy Teigen's right to insult the government without arming it to silence Trump, I believe the First Amendment covers that," Lehrich told Gizmodo in an interview. "Instead of providing a bipartisan push for everything from overhauling our antitrust laws to passing stricter privacy laws at the federal level, it's disappointing that these people spend all their time doing culture war nonsense and let big technology slide.
The aims of the bill seem excessive and unbalanced. The federal government's recently appointed subcommittee on militarization has taken every opportunity to point out the tech moderator's bias against conservatives, but has also remained silent following reports that Twitter CEO Elon Musk censored content critical of India. . Blacklisted by PM Narendra Modi and journalists.
"But for US officials to flag only tweets that violate Twitter's policies on harmful COVID misinformation and non-consensual nudity goes a long way," Lehrich said.
The main group that has been silent on the issue is the big tech companies themselves. No major social media platform has released statements condemning or supporting the law, instead letting lawmakers debate among themselves. As counterintuitive as it may seem, NetChocie, one of the biggest backers of tech companies, is actually leading the GOP legal debate.
"Threats to free speech should be a bipartisan concern, and we must ensure that our leaders respect that freedom," said Karl Szabo, vice president and general counsel for NetChoice, in a statement sent to Gizmodo. "No politician or official should use his authority to suppress Americans' freedom of expression."
No one wants to pack a political punching bag, but Congress' focus on government censorship claims actually poses less of a real threat to social media companies than anti-rust reform or other issues like privacy. Any form of content moderation would anger a certain percentage of users, but the bill being proposed by House Republicans somehow gives tech companies a compelling reason to make tough policy decisions.
"It's good to see this important issue addressed by Congress," Szabo added.
The legislation passed on the same day as a controversial hearing on Hunter Biden's Twitter files and laptop.
The vote on the bill came hours after a particularly contentious session on the Twitter Files, in which lawmakers lavishly criticized or praised Matt Taibbi and Michael Shellenberger, two of the journalists involved in the story. Republicans on the House Judiciary Subcommittee used the platform to take on House censorship arguments, while Democrats accused reporters of using cherry-picked evidence to build narratives about collusion between tech and the government.
"Republicans asked two of Elon Musk's public writers to post emails and select screenshots taken out of context to promote his chosen narrative," the statement said. Plaskett later dismissed Taibbi and Shellenberger as "so-called journalists" and asked them to admit whether Elon Musk was the source responsible for releasing the files on Twitter.