Has Free Speech on the Internet Peaked?

America's internet giants are being pulled into political fights right and left these days. Speech – what can be said, and who can say it – is increasingly at the center of those controversies. Consider these two stories from opposite sides of the world:


On Monday, Twitter deleted hundreds of accounts and suspended 200,000 more that it said were part of a "significant state-backed information operation" to undermine the ongoing protests in Hong Kong. Facebook took similar measures against a smaller number of accounts. Such "de-platforming" has happened before with Russian and Iranian trolls, and US conspiracy theorists, but Twitter also went further, saying it would no longer allow state-controlled media organizations to place ads on its platform (The policy change, which came after some Chinese state-controlled news sides took out Twitter ads disparaging Hong Kong protesters, excludes taxpayer-funded and independent news outlets like NPR or the BBC). While Twitter will still allow government news outlets to get their messages out to people who follow them, it'll no longer give them an extra ad boost.

This marks a further change in how the tech industry sees its role in policing propaganda and misinformation on the internet. For years, industry executives tried to argue they had no business serving as referees and that it wasn't their responsibility to decide who should be able to say what online. The decision not just to expose and ban Chinese trolls, but to rein the reach of government-controlled news is a reminder of just how times have changed. From here on out, expect tech companies to take a narrower view of what speech they'll protect.

Similar political pressures are at work in the US, where the Trump administration has apparently been circulating a proposal that could weaken the protections granted to internet companies under the 1996 Communications Decency Act. That law is the reason why a newspaper can be sued for publishing libelous material, but Google can't. It's also why neo-Nazis can't sue Facebook for taking down videos of their marches. Without that law's protections, modern social media might not even exist.

There's growing bipartisan support for changing the law. Many Republicans are convinced (although evidence is scant) that Silicon Valley companies unjustly censor conservative political views, and they want to tweak liability rules to force the industry to treat the Right more fairly. Democrats, for their part, argue that the world's biggest websites aren't taking hate speech and other harmful content seriously enough. Weakening liability protections would force them to do more.

In both cases, as industry and politicians round on social media messages and practices they don't like, it seems increasingly clear that we've passed peak internet free speech. My question for our Signal readers, is: is that a good thing or a bad thing?

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Bloomberg takes the stage – Tomorrow's Democratic debate will be the first to feature media tycoon Mike Bloomberg, who in recent weeks has thrown hundreds of millions of dollars behind an ad campaign designed to position himself as a viable, moderate candidate who can beat Trump. As his support in national polls has climbed to nearly 20 percent, Bloomberg – who largely sat out the earlier rounds of Democratic campaigning – has come under attack for sexist comments in the past as well as his support, as NYC mayor, for "stop and frisk" policing tactics that disproportionately targeted people of color. Bloomberg will immediately be at war not only with the moderates whom he wants to displace – Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, and Joe Biden – but especially with the front running left-progressive Bernie Sanders. It will likely be quite ugly and we're certainly tuning in.

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150: As the Chinese government continues to expand travel restrictions, hoping that reducing human contact will stop the virus from spreading further, at least 150 million people are now facing government restrictions dictating how often they can leave their homes. That's more than 10 percent of the country's total population who are currently on lockdown. Some 760 million are under partial, locally enforced restrictions.

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While attending the Munich Security Conference, former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was asked to respond to the news of the first coronavirus death outside of Asia. The victim, a Chinese tourist who arrived in France in January, was among 11 confirmed cases in that country. "I think everybody in the world needs to be concerned," Kerry told GZERO.

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