2023 Could Be Remembered As The Year SCOTUS And Elon Musk Aided In Crushing Free Speech On The Internet
If you have "The Freedom Of Speech" square on your "Things I Used To Enjoy About America" BINGO card, scratch it off.
I really love freedom of speech; even when it protects speech I detest. And still, with the internet being all-encompassing (making it nearly impossible to avoid the worst speech humanity has to offer), I've never wanted that freedom removed from the internet at large.
But this doesn't mean I don't understand that words have consequences. The speech Trump made before the January 6th insurrection, along with those who followed his rallying cries, should lead to nothing short of incarceration.
Also, yes, I fully understand the numbers indicate people become emboldened to unleash some of their worst traits when living in an echo chamber online. Yet, I've always been someone who has erred on the side of personal accountability; I feel that the perpetrator of any heinous act should face judgment, and the sentencing shouldn't fall on anyone else.
For those of you who disagree with my sentiments and feel any language that can be considered "dangerous" should be restricted somehow in the name of keeping innocent people safe, I say this: it's your lucky day. It seems that for the stifling of free speech on a platform used by literally hundreds of millions of Americans—the internet—2023 is set up to be a banner year.
These very ideologies when it comes to accountability and the written/spoken word on the internet are about to be tested over the next 12 months in two major ways. One will be coming from the rulings of two upcoming cases the Supreme Court has decided to hear. The other will be coming from the Supreme Douche that is Elon Musk and how his acquisition of Twitter has been/will be impacting what free speech means for those who use the largest social media platform on Earth. In both instances, free speech on the internet hangs in the balance.
Since his acquisition of Twitter and the foibles that have followed have been headline fodder since the news broke, let’s begin with how Musk is helping to dismantle this right.
In October of last year, it was announced that Elon Musk had purchased Twitter. Shortly thereafter he made the statement, “New Twitter policy is freedom of speech, but not freedom of reach.” His proposal was that freedom of speech would reign supreme, but certain detestable beliefs wouldn’t be given as wide of an audience in an attempt to curb the promotion of ideals that are detrimental to society.
Since then, everything has fallen apart.
Who can forget when SpaceX fired at least five employees after it found they had drafted and circulated a letter criticizing founder Elon Musk and urging executives to make the firm's culture more inclusive?
And who could forget that in early December 2022 Twitter suddenly suspended several high-profile journalists who cover the platform and Elon Musk? Musk said the suspensions stemmed from the platform's new rules banning private jet trackers. He noted that the suspended accounts had posted links to jet trackers on other websites. However, there are two problems with his rationale. First, neither NBC News (or any other news outlet) was able to verify that allegation. Second, also in early November, Musk tweeted that he would not ban the account that tracked his jet.
These are just two examples of him trying to stifle speech/speakers he disagrees with. But whenever Musk is involved, you know he has to take it one step further. He has accomplished this by disseminating his own dangerous lies on Twitter. Shortly after the attack on Paul Pelosi, he tweeted and then deleted a link to a baseless conspiracy theory that Paul, husband of Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, had been beaten with a hammer at the couple’s San Francisco home by a “gay lover.”
Sad to say, but this brand of “free speech” that Musk has latched on to will be the new normal for quite some time in 2023.
Though Musk vowed to resign as the head of Twitter, he will remain a dominant force at the company. He will retain control over the software and server departments, important teams that will grant him significant control over how the social media platform operates.
"It will be Elon's impulse to jump in and say, 'It's my money at stake, it's my reputation at stake–I have to be a part of every decision,’'' Peter Harms, a professor at the University of Alabama who has studied corporate leadership, told ABC News. "He has shown no inclination to delegate authority with his businesses.”
I have to admit though, stifling speech that you disagree with, followed by spreading your own version of reality on social media has a familiar, conservative-sounding ring to it. This isn’t surprising when you find out that Musk promoted the notion of voting Republican in the 2022 midterms. "I have voted overwhelmingly for Democrats, historically–overwhelmingly. Like, I'm not sure, I might never have voted for a Republican, just to be clear. Now this election, I will."
How brave …
Though Musk may be a douche-nozzle, he knows which way the wind blows. He knows that the current, conservative-driven Supreme Court will have authority over laws that will impact the things he loves most for decades to come. This is especially true when it comes to the upcoming 2023 verdicts which can directly impact not only Twitter but the future of free speech on the internet as a whole by dismantling some of the protections afforded by Section 230.
Section 230 shields tech platforms from lawsuits for hosting and moderating user content. This section is one of the most important laws in tech policy, and this will be the first time the Supreme Court has interpreted its scope. Back in 1996, Section 230 was created to encourage the development of the internet while fostering a safe online environment where users could connect and civilly express themselves.
The upcoming verdicts have Section 230 in the crosshairs and depending on the judge’s written opinions, we could see a world where the liability of someone’s actions could fall in the laps of whoever hosted the platform of the person/people responsible for a crime. A good example of what this could look like would be if two people get in a Twitter battle, and one of them says they’re going to kill the other, and does it, Twitter would be held liable for the death.
The first case the court heard was that of Gonzalez v. Google LLC. Gonzalez v. Google LLC centers around the family of Nohemi Gonzalez, who was killed in an ISIS terrorist attack in Paris in 2015. The plaintiffs of this case argue 1) the defendant violated the Anti-Terrorism Act by communicating ISIS messaging, radicalizing recruits, and furthering their mission, and 2) should be held liable for this content because it was promoted through targeted recommendations on its website. The plaintiffs allege that this promotion constituted Google’s aiding and abetting in the promotion and recruitment efforts of these terrorist organizations.
This thinking has also led SCOTUS to agree to hear Twitter, Inc. v. Taamneh, a case claiming that Twitter, Google, and Facebook were “aiding and abetting” international terrorist acts by distributing ISIS content on their platforms. Twitter petitioned the Supreme Court to review the underlying 9th Circuit ruling, which was decided in the same opinion as Gonzalez. However, unlike in the Gonzalez case, the 9th Circuit didn’t consider Section 230 in the Twitter case and found that Twitter, Google and Facebook could be liable for aiding and abetting an act of international terrorism.
What makes this scenario so terrifying comes from the possible verbiage used in the judge’s opinions. They could either keep the scope to terrorist videos specifically, or they could rule in such a way that causes a domino effect that could lead to heavy censorship of every corner of the internet.
I understand the desire to remove any form of bigotry online. I understand that social media and other (perceived as necessary) ills of the internet experience can be filled with hate and vitriol to the point where someone could be pushed over the edge—whatever that means in each occurrence—with disastrous results. However, time and time again we have seen that anytime a person or a group with heavy political ties gets their grubby little paws on the freedoms we currently enjoy, those freedoms get so warped by agendas as to be unrecognizable from the source material. Don’t forget, we saw it with the reproductive rights we enjoyed for 50 years.
With that in mind, do you really want someone designated by that same group of conservative political heavyweights to be given the authority to determine what you should or should not read?