By Janita Kan
Big tech companies such as Twitter, Google, and Facebook should face major penalties if they continue to engage in censorship of conservative voices, President Donald Trump told an audience at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC).
The former president, in his first major appearance since leaving office, took the opportunity to renew calls to sanction Silicon Valley companies that have engaged in what is perceived to be unbalanced moderation of user content that typically targets conservative voices and viewpoints.
“The time has come to break up big tech monopolies and restore fair competition,” Trump said during his address on Sunday. “Big tech giants like Twitter, Google, and Facebook should be punished with major sanctions, whenever they silence conservative voices.”
Trump and his administration have been calling for the abolishment or reforms to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act to remove liability protections for companies that engage in the censoring of political speech. They have accused the companies of acting as publishers rather than online platforms when they engage in targeted moderation of user content. Protections under Section 230 aren’t intended to be used to protect publishers.
A number of antitrust investigations into big tech companies are underway. The Justice Department previously said they have opened antitrust probes into major digital technology firms and have filed a lawsuit against Google over anti-competitive allegations. Similarly, Texas has also filed its own antitrust lawsuit against Google.
Some states are exploring legislation to prevent big tech companies from using their monopoly to police speech they don’t agree with. Florida proposed that it would seek to penalize social media companies that de-platform candidates during an election. The legislation would fine companies $100,000 a day until the candidate’s access to the platform is restored. Texas is also considering similar legislation.
Many of the regulatory moves were made in response to increased policing of user speech, in particular, during the lead up to the Nov. 3 election and after the Jan. 6 breach of the U.S. Capitol. The social media companies’ moderation saw Trump’s account permanently suspended on Twitter and indefinitely banned on Facebook and Instagram. An appeal over Facebook’s decision to ban Trump is currently under consideration by what is said to be an independent oversight commission paid for by the platform.
“Republicans and conservatives must open up our platforms and repealed section 230 liability protections. And if the federal government refuses to act, then every state in the Union, where we have the votes, which is a lot of them,” Trump said. He praised Florida and Texas for their willingness to address the issue.
“If Republicans can be censored for speaking the truth, and calling out corruption, we will not have democracy, and we will have only left-wing tyranny,” he added.
Meanwhile, these digital behemoths are also facing pushback from governments around the world that are concerned over the power these companies yield over public discourse and business competition. Australia is the latest country to pass legislation making Google and Facebook pay for news content. The law backs public-interest journalism and aims to provide a level playing field between these platforms and media companies, which have been losing advertising revenue to these platforms. Other countries have signaled an intention to follow in the footsteps of Australia.
While big tech is policing speech in the private sphere, Democrats in Congress are rapidly attempting to push forward the passage of a bill known as H.R. 1, or For the People Act, that conservatives warn would further limit political speech.
Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.), who introduced the 2021 version of the bill, said it seeks to “overcome rampant voter suppression, gerrymandering and a torrent of special interest dark money” in American elections. However, critics say the bill also imposes new restrictions on speech about the campaign as well as prevents Americans from publishing and organizing into groups to advocate their government.
“H.R. 1 and S. 1 would force onerous and unworkable standards upon the ability of Americans and groups of Americans to discuss the policy issues of the day with elected officials and the public,” the Institute of Free Speech said in a blog post. “Other provisions would violate the privacy of advocacy groups and their supporters, stringently regulate political speech online, and compel speakers to include lengthy government-mandated messages identifying some of their supporters by name in their communications.”
Trump during his speech warned about the enactment of such legislation, saying that it would empower the federal government to shut down dissent and turn the Federal Election Commission into a “partisan political weapon.”
“We have no time to waste Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats in Congress are racing to pass a fragrantly, flagrantly unconstitutional attack on the First Amendment and the integrity of our elections, known as H.R. 1,” he said.
He also raised concerns over some of the bill’s proposals such as eliminating voter ID requirements and letting “unaccountable, unelected bureaucrats in charge of drawing congressional districts,” through independent redistricting commissions.
“This monster must be stopped. It cannot be allowed to pass,” he said.
“Now more than ever is the time for tough, strong, and energetic Republican leaders who have spines of steel. We need strong leadership. We cannot have leaders who show more passion for condemning their fellow Americans than they have ever shown for standing up to Democrats, to the media, and the radicals who want to turn America into a socialist country.”
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