Milo Yiannopolus, Roger Stone, Paul Nehlen, Jared Taylor, Baked Alaska, Ricky Vaughn, and thousands of supposed “Russian bots” are just a few of those Twitter has permanently banned, seemingly for expressing unpopular political viewpoints. Wikipedia chronicles the various prominent accounts Twitter has banned and suspended. Nearly all belong to right wingers. Internet viewpoint discrimination goes beyond Twitter. YouTube (Google) routinely deletes accounts and videos of right wingers, particularly in the aftermath of the Parkland school shooting. The problem of Internet censorship is also not isolated to social media. Most notably, after featuring a joke about the woman who died at the Charlottesville protests, Andrew Anglin’s popular site The Daily Stormer has had to jump from host to host, prompting concerns among civil libertarians. Once a last refuge for free speech, the Internet has become increasingly less so. Perhaps we have reached the breaking point. Is it time to adopt an Internet Bill of Rights to protect our God-given right of free speech on the web?
In January, AT&T released a statement advocating for Congress to pass an Internet Bill of Rights. While the statement did not expressly identify free speech as an item to protect, in laying out its own policies, AT&T outlined terms one might expect in a bill:
AT&T is committed to an open internet. We don’t block websites. We don’t censor online content. And we don’t throttle, discriminate, or degrade network performance based on content. Period.
Ideally, the protection would be stronger than not “censor[ing] online content.” It would at least be as strong as provided in the U.S. Bill of Rights:
Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Substitute Congress with Common Carrier (to include social media and ISPs) and provide for punishments for violating a user’s free speech.
QAnon, an 8chan poster who has reached legendary status among the right for supplying supposedly inside information on the Trump administration, has endorsed the Internet Bill of Rights and prompted the Twitter hashtag #InternetBillofRights. Earlier this month, citing the censorship of conservatives, someone using the name “AM” created a petition on WhiteHouse.gov advocating for an Internet Bill of Rights. It currently has over 32,500 supporters.
Nevertheless, there are always concerns that come with any kind of Internet regulation. As I wrote in 2015 quoting John Marshall, “an unlimited power to tax [or regulate] involves, necessarily, a power to destroy.” The enforcement mechanism of a potential Internet Bill of Rights must be worked out. Rights of social media operators and ISPs must not be overlooked. Lastly, guaranteed speech rights must go hand in hand with privacy rights, especially the right to remain anonymous. This seems like a step in the right direction but only time will tell if it can gain further traction.