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Justice Department’s threat to social media giants is wrong

Never has it been so clear that the attorneys charged with enforcing the laws of the country have a complete disregard for the very laws they’re meant to enforce. As executives of Twitter and Facebook took to the floor of the Senate to testify about their companies’ response to international meddling into U.S. elections and addressed the problem of propagandists and polemicists using their platforms to spread misinformation, the legal geniuses at the Justice Department were focused on a free speech debate that isn’t just unprecedented, but also potentially illegal.

These attorneys general convened to confabulate on the “growing concern” that social media companies are stifling expression and hurting competition. What’s really at issue is a conservative canard and talking point that tries to make a case that private companies have a First Amendment obligation to allow any kind of speech on their platforms. The simple fact is that they do not. Let me repeat that. They simply do not. What the government’s lawyers are trying to do is foist a responsibility that they have to uphold the First Amendment onto private companies that are under no such obligation. Why are these legal eagles so up in arms? The simple answer is the decision made by many platforms to silence voices that violate the expressed policies of the platforms they’re using. Chief among these is Alex Jones who has claimed that the Sandy Hook school shooting was a hoax and accused victims of the Parkland school shooting of being crisis actors. Last month a number of those social media platforms that distributed Jones finally decided that enough was enough.

The decision to boot Jones is their prerogative as private companies. While Jones has the right to shout whatever he wants from a soapbox in free speech alley (or a back alley, or into a tin can) — and while he can’t be prosecuted for anything that he says (no matter how offensive, absurd or insane) — he doesn’t have the right to have his opinions automatically amplified by every social media platform. Almost all of the big networking platforms have come to that conclusion. The technology-lobbying body has already issued a statement excoriating the Department of Justice for its ham-handed approach.
[The] U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) today released a statement saying that it was convening state attorneys general to discuss its concerns that these companies were “hurting competition and intentionally stifling the free exchange of ideas.” Social media platforms have the right to determine what types of legal speech they will permit on their platforms. It is inappropriate for the federal government to use the threat of law enforcement to limit companies from exercising this right. In particular, law enforcement should not threaten social media companies with unwarranted investigations for their efforts to rid their platforms of extremists who incite hate and violence.
While the Justice Department’s approach muddies the waters and makes it more difficult for legitimate criticism and reasoned regulation of the social media platforms to take hold, there are legitimate issues that legislators need to address. Indeed, many of them were raised in a white paper from Senator Mark Warner, which was released in the dog days of summer. Or the Justice Department could focus on the issue that Senator Ron Wyden emphasized in the hours after the hearing:
Instead of focusing on privacy or security, attorneys general for the government are waging a Pyrrhic war against censorship that doesn’t exist and ignoring the real cold war for platform security.

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