Below 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.