Beware Of Politicians Promising An “Honest” Internet: New Bills Targeting Russians May Bag Free Speech

800px-Capitol_Building_Full_ViewBelow is my column in USA Today on the legislation proposed to combat Russian trolling and Internet campaigns.  There is a serious threat to free speech in these measures, which mirror efforts from (ironically) countries like Russia and China.  The serious threat is not a handful of Russians playing on our deep divisions, but rather the hacking operations and attempt to interfere with voting systems.

Here is the column:

Beware of politicians trying to make the Internet “honest again.” Democratic lawmakers  responding to Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election want to increase the regulation of the Internet, from a dubiously named “Honest Ads Act” to the fining of sites for suspicious posters, to increased use of national security laws to scrutinize posters. Most of these measures would have had little if any impact on the Russian operation, but they could open the door to significantly curtailing free speech on the Internet.

There are three areas of illicit Russian activities: hacks of emails, attempts to compromise voting systems, and using posts and protesters to foment division. The first two areas are major threats that should be and can be addressed with new federal programs. However, after the recent indictment of 13 Russian nationals by special counsel Robert Mueller, politicians instead called for stripping away anonymity for Internet ads and cracking down on bots and trolls.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., has declared that 240 years after our founding, “our democracy is at risk. Russia attacked our elections, and they and other foreign powers and interests will continue to divide our country if we don’t act now.”  However, “they” did not “divide our country.” We divided our country long before the Russians started posting juvenile pictures of Hillary Clinton in prison garb.

Clinton and Trump were the least popular candidates ever to run for the presidency,  according to multiple polls. They hardly needed the help of a dozen or so Russians in St. Petersburg to materially add to those divisions. Indeed, the sheer premise of the operation was moronic. It was like trying to speed the descent of a falling locomotive by jumping up and down on it. We were already a nation plunging into political chaos with the selection of these two candidates and long simmering political divisions stretching back to the Bill Clinton administration.

There are hundreds of “legitimate” Democratic and Republican trolling sites (some supported by campaign activities) that did little but generate gossip, conspiracies and false stories. Hillary Clinton was infamous for her association with characters like Sidney Blumenthal and David Brock. Trump had dubious allies like Steve Bannon and Alex Jones. From the descriptions in the indictment, these Russians look like the tee-ball league in comparison to these major league players of political slime.

Nevertheless, Klobuchar declared last Sunday that it would be “a great idea” to pass legislation that said companies like Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc. should be fined if they don’t remove automated accounts, or bots.

Likewise, Klobuchar, and her colleagues Mark Warner, D-Va., and John McCain, R-Ariz., have proposed the Honest Ads Act to require Internet companies to disclose more about their advertisers and store copies of all political ads for the public to view. The bill would also force campaigns that want to spend more than $500 on political ads, tech and ad platforms to make new disclosures to the government about the organizations that purchased them, the audiences the ads might have targeted, and how much they cost.

None of this would have stopped the Russians. Their Internet Research Agency reportedly bought about than $150,000 in ad space on Facebook (to put that in context, the Clinton campaign spent more than $140 million overall on ads before the campaign was even over. The Russians relied primarily on hundreds of false Facebook pages to distribute false information and worked with smaller blogs and sites that would not fall under most of the legislative proposals (for now). The advertising component was so minor that if they didn’t want to disclose details about it, they easily could have forgone ads altogether.

Other advocates outside Congress appear to want even greater forced disclosures. Claire Finkelstein, director of the Center for Ethics and the Rule of Law at the University of Pennsylvania, has called for compelled disclosure of funding sources for social media advertisements and political messaging. This could achieve what Russia, China, Iran and other authoritarian countries have demanded for years: the forced disclosure of associations and information, in particular by foreign organizations and NGOs seeking to support issues and causes.

Our closest allies have shown that the appetite of government to regulate Internet speech is insatiable. France has prosecuted Twitter for allowing people to post offensive comments and forced the company to strip posters of anonymity. Germany is moving to impose crippling fines on sites that it deems to be the source of “fake news.” Authoritarian countries like China have not missed the opportunity and have arrested hundreds for spreading “fake news.”

The near hysteria over this Russian operation far exceeds its real impact on our political system. In the end, these measures are likely to produce a greater reduction in free speech than trolls or moles on the Internet.

The most lasting damage could prove to be the result of the “fixes” rather than the original problem. We should focus on protecting our communication and voting systems and leave the Internet alone.

Jonathan Turley, a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors, is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University, where he teaches constitutional and tort law. Follow him on Twitter: @JonathanTurley.

143 thoughts on “Beware Of Politicians Promising An “Honest” Internet: New Bills Targeting Russians May Bag Free Speech

  1. It’s hard to be a voice of reason. “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance” is more than just an aphorism. It’s tempting and easy to restrict freedoms when we don’t like their content, but then they’ll be gone for all of us. And once gone, probably irretrievable.

    • “Freedom of speech is a vestige of the defunct U.S. democracy. It’s charming but, without purpose.”

      So says Linda, the Stalinist.

  2. ha ha ha ha “Legitimate” newz organization CNN never learns do they?

    “CNN is dispatching reporters around the world to help dig up clues and finally get to the bottom of the Trump campaign’s Russia ties. Last month the network infamously sent a reporter to St. Petersburg, where he literally dug around a dumpster looking for leads.

    Today CNN sent a reporter to Bangkok to speak with a prostitute who claims to have the goods on the Trump camp’s alleged collusion with Russia. The woman, Anastasia Vashukevich, who is also a self-described “sex coach,” is currently imprisoned, and hopes that America will offer her asylum in exchange for her story.”

    “CNN Travels to Thailand to Speak with Prostitute Who Claims to Have Dirt on Trump”

    • That’s what the Democrats offer I guess. Well, you can add gun control. Their actions prove they are in the game for power and control, not running the country or improving the state of the nation. This whole sordid affair basically proves that the whole Democratic machinery is, well… undemocratic. We plainly see now that Clinton expected to win the Presidency by using the power of the government–that’s why she neglected to campaign, and so reckless to refer to a voting population as “deplorables.” You can say things like that with confidence when you know the fix is in the bag, until it wasn’t. There’s a job that needs to be done. Can’t Trump just call in the marines to round up the FBI? Maybe that would be incentive for Democrats to think about providing input on REAL issues that face the country.

    • The Koch’s “freedom” PR is a false flag, just as their “limited government” propaganda is. They finance ALEC and American City and County Exchange to get what they want by shadowing and undermining the elected government process. The libertarian Kochtopus equates to leaving the 99% with nothing left to lose. Labor is getting the lowest share of national income in recorded U.S. history because the richest 0.1% decided to use business profits from consumers to run an oligarchical political system.

      • “They finance ALEC”

        What does Linda have against: (Maybe she believes in racism or is part of an agricultural cartel.)

        “Our modern, high-tech and high-yield agriculture system, a product of the 20th Century’s “Green Revolution,” is critical in providing food to billions while minimizing damage to natural habitats and biodiversity. The proper role of government involvement in agriculture should be to limit and remove barriers for agricultural production, trade and consumption through our innovative food system. Processes for safety regulations should incorporate a least restrictive approach for ensuring public safety and confidence, economics, definitive risk data, and food security.”

        Or this:

        “In 2012, ALEC and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) hosted a summit focused on inspiring state criminal justice policy. Working with the ACLU, ALEC members successfully implemented mandatory minimum sentencing reforms around the country. In September of 2015, ALEC and the National Black Caucus of State Legislators (NBCSL) formed a new partnership to prioritize the prevention of overcriminalization, the reforming of mandatory minimum sentencing laws, the reduction of recidivism rates and the promotion of community-based alternatives to lengthy jail stays for non-violent offenders. ALEC members’ work has sparked a new wave of state criminal justice legislation that is carefully crafted to maximize taxpayer dollars to protect the public while preventing overcriminalization and unnecessary prison stays.”

  3. Turley said, “. . . compelled disclosure of funding sources for social media advertisements and political messaging . . . could achieve what Russia, China, Iran and other authoritarian countries have demanded for years: the forced disclosure of associations and information, in particular by foreign organizations and NGOs seeking to support issues and causes.”

    We currently have laws compelling candidates for public office to state that they approve of the messages broadcast in support of their candidacies. Have Russia, China, Iran and other authoritarian countries adopted similar laws compelling their candidates for public office to state that they approve the messages broadcast in support of their candidacies? If that last question is a false equivalency, then how is Turley’s argument anything other than yet another false equivalency?

    The first step in any effective counter-propaganda effort is to identify and publish the true source of the propaganda and the disinformation. To argue that the government would infringe the First Amendment right of Americans to speak freely by identifying and publishing the true source of foreign propaganda and foreign disinformation is to extend the First Amendment rights of Americans to foreign intelligence operatives. Would Russia, China, Iran and other authoritarian regimes extend First Amendment rights to our intelligence operatives? If that last question is a false equivalency, then how is Turley’s argument anything other than yet another false equivalency?

    Turley would make the First Amendment a suicide pact.

    • Dark money, whether its source is the richest 0.1% or a foreign nation, helps protect oligarchy.
      (1) “Nationalism” (propped up with tribalism) is part of the PR that diverts attention from oligarch exploitation. In economic policy, global oligarchs make national interest, toothless. It’s slippery territory that Putin and Trump are trying to navigate and mine.
      (2) Free speech (a selective version) is ostensibly the underpinning for the blog’s posted argument. However, corporate limits to free speech in the form of net neutrality elimination didn’t provoke an argument from Turley. Nor, did an arrest resulting from labor’s free speech at a Louisiana school board meeting.
      The two preceding, join with (3) the quashing of labor’s avenues for power (the case currently before SCOTUS) to act as a diversion, masking the theft of resources from the world’s people e.g. public education privatized for profit.
      Putin built his empire by telling Russians he would make Russia great again. Trump-same slogan. Putin has ruled for almost two decades- a generation, and still Russians are poor. In the U.S., plutocrats have steered for 30+ years and, the people are poorer. The American people are catching with Russian poverty and lack of democracy, while global wealth concentrates at a destructive rate.
      Turley’s positions align with advocacy for oligarchy. His view about communally-owned parks is an exception.

      • Linda, you might be right about Turley. I don’t know. I wasn’t reading or posting here at the time of the Citizen’s United SCOTUS decision. And I’m too busy with the counter-propaganda effort on this blawg to rummage through the archives. In any case, Turley’s position on free speech appears to me to be very nearly absolutist. I honestly don’t see why Turley thinks the government can’t inform its citizen’s of the occurance of foreign propaganda and disinformation without violating the First Amendment. Counter-propaganda does not have to entail the censorship of propaganda and disinformation. It can be practiced on the same voluntary basis as any other dissemination and consumption of information.

        • Turley wrote the following about Citizen’s United, while defending his position that he would probably support the court’s majority verdict, “The problem is not financial” (the amount of money spent).
          He, apparently rejected the reality of 99% reduced to subsistence wages who can’t buy influence.The richest 1% have all of the rewards to give politicians.

          • “The richest 1% have all of the rewards to give politicians.”

            …And as demonstrated earlier the richest 1% are mostly Democrats. They even buy up the newspapers such as the Washington Post (Jeff Bezos) so they can write the news any way they see fit

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