Tech Policy In The Time Of Trump: Mid-2020 Edition
from the this-is-not-a-drill dept
We’re not partisan here at Techdirt. We have our personal preferences, certainly, but technology policy tends to transcend normal political divisions. We have been just as likely to see good policy proposals from Democrats as Republicans, and bad ones just the same. What we care about here is ensuring that the founding principles of liberty articulated by the Constitution can be meaningfully applied in a modern, technology driven world. That value is not a partisan one. We don’t care who is the hero who makes sure we do not spiral into dystopia; we just want to make sure we don’t. And our job is to point out how we may already be.
For the first years of the Trump Administration I took to writing annual summaries of how things might shake out on the tech policy front given the current make-up of government. And then I stopped. By then we had children in cages, and suddenly trying to read the political tea leaves seemed like a remarkably pointless exercise. Also unhelpful, glib, and potentially even harmful. There is no point in acting as though everything is politics as usual when the situation has become anything but. A horrific line had been crossed, and it wasn’t even the first. But unless everyone recognized how dangerously abnormal politics had become, it would certainly not be the last.
And yet it sadly appears that politics has chugged on as usual. And as a result more uncrossable lines have, indeed, been crossed. As was inevitable, yesterday’s rounding up of immigrants became today’s rounding up of American citizens.
So if we’re going to talk about tech policy in the time of Trump, we need to be worried about what will happen tomorrow. Our paramount concern therefore needs to be ensuring that tech policy enables us to check further misuse of power. It certainly must not help further entrench it. So let’s dig in and see where we are. In my original posts I distilled my comments into four general policy areas that now seem trivially pedestrian. The breakdown implies that we can simply focus on a particular area and its localized political skirmishes and leave the others for another day. Which is silly; when the whole house is on fire focusing on how an individual room may be decorated is not going to be an effective way of addressing the actual crisis at hand. But for the sake of uniformity, I might as well continue with the same organization.
Free speech/copyright. President Trump is infamous for lying. But there’s one thing he said that has been true: that he was going to “open up” our libel laws to make it even easier to sue someone for their expression. In fact he’s gone even further than that, undermining every expressive right the First Amendment guarantees, including the right to protest, which he has now co-opted federal forces to physically attack.
But as for making it easier to sue people for their speech, he has done that by example, as he and his confederates have launched specious lawsuit after specious lawsuit against speakers, platforms, and traditional press and publishers to challenge their critical (and generally completely lawful) contributions to needed public discourse. On more than one occasion he didn’t even wait for them to make the speech before suing to shut them down. It turns out he didn’t need to change a single law to effectively obviate the right to free speech; he just had to drown out the voices speaking against him with a flood of litigation in order to silence them.
The running theme throughout this commentary is that lawmakers should not waste time with the traditional horse-trading that fills the corridors of our capitols as policy normally gets set. We do not have the luxury, here in 2020, of developing policy that would optimize life in America; at the moment our only task is to save it. And that requires recognizing the urgency of the moment, because if you don’t vote against totalitarianism when you have the chance, you may never have the chance again. So while there are plenty of areas where ordinarily lawmakers should act to articulate good policy in law, including on the tech policy front, right now there is no policy value more important for lawmakers to express in law than preserving the right to expression.
In particular, they should waste no time getting effective anti-SLAPP laws on the books. Every state needs one (looking at you, Virginia?). As does the entire federal legal system, so that we can ensure that federal courts can no longer be the refuge of the censor eager to chill the speech of their critics. Do not pass go; drop almost everything else to get this done. Because if we cannot ensure the public’s right to speak out against oppression, then we all but guarantee that oppression to prevail.
Which brings us to copyright, the deck chairs on this sinking Titanic. Could copyright policy be better attuned to the economics of producing and consuming expression in the 21st century? Perhaps. But at the moment that policy challenge is largely irrelevant. The very ability to create and consume expression is itself under fire, and our sole goal needs to be to preserve it. Copyright law inherently is about controlling expression, and that’s the last thing we need to be empowering anyone to do.
Mass surveillance/encryption. We have been warning for years against giving the police the unchecked power to invade people’s privacy. The ability people need to have to keep their personal affairs free from the prying eyes of the government is no less essential to preserve now, in the 21st Century, than it ever was in the 18th. If anything it is even more important to hold fast to the constitutional barriers that prevent the government from readily invading our private lives now that so much of those lives ? personal choices, associations, ideas, etc. ? are so casually captured in digital records so easy for the government to track.
We also challenged the excuses law enforcement gave for why they needed this exceptional ability to bypass the basic constitutional tenets normally prohibiting them from helping themselves to this data. They were nearly all predicated on the assumption that the state authority was the good guy and that it needed to save the public from the bad guys hiding among us. We challenged these arguments because these assumptions were inherently unsound ? as the news lately has been daily proving.
It is proving us right on a local level ? see all the examples of violent police behavior that have inspired weeks and weeks of protest ? and increasingly on the federal level, as President Trump unleashes federal forces against those who speak against him. These are not the acts of benevolent protectors we can safely entrust with the awesome power of the state, unchecked. These are the acts of the sorts of bad actors that our civil liberties were designed to protect us from. But when we bless digital surveillance programs that ignore our constitutional protections, and undermine the encryption technology that allows us to make the protections meaningful on a practical level, we make ourselves vulnerable to abuses of power by eliminating our defenses against them. No policymaker committed to the enduring idea of American democracy can possibly advocate in good faith or with intellectual coherence for any policy agenda that continues down such a destructive path. When a powerful state actor has already abused his power against the public, it makes no sense to give him more power to continue that abuse, and it is beyond na?ve to believe it wouldn’t be so abused. Not when we can already see in painful clarity how much it already has.
Net neutrality/intermediary liability. The political corruption of antitrust enforcement has poisoned this entire policy area. Net neutrality stands for the principle of non-discrimination on the part of service providers enabling the public’s online expression. For Internet services where there is no meaningful competition, regulation committed to maintaining that principle is important. It is not, however, useful to enforce that principle in areas where there is competition. In fact, it presents its own harm to expressive liberty when these service providers are denied the freedom to discriminate. Having some sort of principled, meaningful, and consistent way of identifying which service providers are which is therefore crucial. Yet that is not what we’ve got. Instead we have angry, reactionary, inconsistent, unrealistic, unwise, and often unconstitutional policy demands from both sides of the aisle.
The upshot is that people’s ability to speak freely online is at risk. The only way we can protect that ability is by protecting and promoting the existence of the service providers that enable it. Which means not only encouraging the competitive market needed to ensure there are enough avenues for basic Internet access, but also ensuring that there are no barriers limiting our supply of other platforms. Unfortunately, we are currently doing the complete opposite on both fronts, and in the process directly preventing needed lawful discourse.
In some cases it’s because people can’t get online at all. Either they don’t have any service due to a failure of broadband competition policy, or, worse, because we have forced service providers to deny their expression. In those cases sometimes we’ve used copyright as the rationale to bludgeon service providers into removing speech or even kick off users from their services entirely (and regardless of whether they had actually violated any law). But it’s also not the only way we have scared providers into pre-emptively kicking off users or their expression with the plausible fear of being held liable for that expression. The inscrutable FOSTA has already directly chilled platforms and the lawful expression they facilitate, and now lawmakers are threatening even more cumbersome regulation to do even more to terrify platforms into removing user expression, if not cease to exist entirely.
When the United States of America is teetering towards autocracy, it is not the time to impose any policy that would inhibit the public’s ability to use the Internet to speak out against it. But that’s what most of the proposals being put forth that target service providers threaten to do, from undermining their Section 230 immunity, to further conditioning their DMCA safe harbor, to even encumbering them excessively with ill-tailored regulations on the privacy and security front. Any policy that will have the effect of reducing the supply of online outlets or constraining their ability to enable protected speech ? as all these policy proposals do ? will only invite disaster when it erodes our ability to use the Internet to speak out against abuses of power, including state power. They all are a mistake.
Internet governance. In his tenure President Trump has accomplished two things: (1) eroding international cooperation and the US’s commitment to the public international law that supports it, and (2) empowering autocrats. In the previous posts I lamented how Trump has also undermined the organs enabling international cooperation, but maybe it’s just as well. Internationalism inherently wrangles input from around the globe, and that input increasingly includes hostility to freedom. The United States should be standing against this trend. Our tradition of liberty should be our chief export. But so long as all we are busy modeling is our indifference to freedom, if not also our abject surrender of it, then there may be no point in engaging with other national governments who would hasten its demise for everyone by giving them the institutional foothold from which to do it.