Opinion: The government should keep its hands off my godd*mn internet

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In the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, Facebook and other social media platforms began publicizing the fact that the companies had found evidence of attempted meddling in the election process via fake accounts, bots, etc.

Since the election, Facebook and Twitter specifically identified several other meddling attempts aimed to affect the outcome of the 2018 midterm elections.

“I can say I think with pretty high confidence I think this is Russian-related,” said Senator Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee.

In addition to meddling, major tech companies, specifically Facebook, have identified security breaches through which the American public discovered the amount and depth of information these companies collect on users. A whistle-blower at Facebook leaked that Cambridge Analytica acquired private information on users, which may have been used to influence opinion during the 2016 presidential campaign.

In July 2018, Mark Zuckerberg defended Facebook’s refusal to censor Holocaust deniers. This decision resulted in a debate about free speech and censorship. People called for Facebook to censor any and all hate speech, not just hate speech as defined by the United States government.

Hate speech is generally known as speech attacking or targeting persons of minority groups for being part of such groups. According to the legal definition, hate speech is speech “inciting imminent lawless action” (Brandenburg v. Ohio, 1969).

Data breaches, election meddling and increased calls to limit hate and false-speech have induced calls for increased government regulation of major tech companies. Several such companies have been called to testify before Congress in the last several months to address both election meddling and data breaches.

The companies have been contrite about their involvement in election meddling and about data breaches, but they maintain that they have reacted properly despite their mistakes. The statements feel like formalities, evidence that the companies think they’re untouchable.

On Aug. 28, President Trump accused Google of holding an anti-conservative bias.

“In other words, they have it RIGGED, for me & others, so that almost all stories & news [about Trump] is BAD. Fake CNN is prominent. Republican/Conservative & Fair Media is shut out. Illegal? 96% of… results on “Trump News” are from National Left-Wing Media, very dangerous. Google & others are suppressing voices of Conservatives and hiding information and news that is good. They are controlling what we can & cannot see. This is a very serious situation-will be addressed!” Trump tweeted.

The conservative firestorm that followed accused major tech companies of displaying a liberal bias that should be mitigated and, as Trump said, their actions may be illegal. This call to regulate tech companies for their search results is absurd. Absolutely, totally ridiculous.

Maybe Google does have a liberal bias and actively works to limit positive information about Trump. Maybe they use an algorithm that displays the most popular results, which for news often include sources generally acknowledged as reputable, like the New York Times, that Trump deems “left-wing.” Maybe they accept money from companies to display certain results first. Regardless of the company’s policies, if you disagree with the way a company is run, stop supporting them.

Despite data breaches, despite successful tampering with the U.S. election process, despite instances of shared false information, despite hate-speech, despite allegations of political bias, the U.S. Congress should not regulate major tech companies. Free speech should be a primary focus of our democracy.

According to a report from Gallup and Knight Foundation, 97 percent of Americans think that tech companies should be regulated in the same way news organizations are. At risk of stating the obvious, tech companies are not news organizations. They facilitate the exchange of information and opinion but not the publication of information.

Limiting the ability of tech companies to facilitate free speech threatens our constitutional rights and may lead to a slippery slope of what is allowed and what is not being regulated by our government. This is not to say that companies should not have or be allowed to have their own regulatory policies. They should. These policies should simply not be implemented by the government.

If the American public cares about limiting false accounts, false information or invasion of privacy, individuals need to take action against it. We are too passive on the internet. We have lost any semblance of desiring facts in favor of desiring echo chambers.

Foreign nations cannot interfere with our elections unless we let them. American citizens vote in our elections. Foreign governments do not. Americans have stopped caring about making informed voting decisions, have stopped caring about holding companies accountable and have stopped caring about their own agency to make change.

Yes, tech companies have made serious mistakes. Yes, they need to change their policies. But it is our job, not the government’s, to force companies to make these changes.

Facebook has been under fire for over a year now, yet we still use it. We have known about foreign interference in our election process for over a year now, yet we still fall for it.

By being a passive consumer of social media, who claims that companies must be strictly regulated, you are giving these companies more power than they would otherwise have. You get to choose, in part, what information you see, what information you believe, what information you endeavor to learn more about and what information you react to.

If Americans care about the role of American companies in the development of technology, they should take care to understand how this regulation may slow development.

“Will the United States continue its breathtaking technological advances?” Bill Gates, owner and founder of Microsoft, asked members of Congress in 1998. “I believe the answer is yes – if innovation is not restricted by government.”

We take pride in innovation, in development, in leading the world in technology. These developments do not take place in Congress. They do not take place as a result of people who don’t know how to use an iPhone. They do not take place as a result of lifelong dedication to politics.

Technology progresses because people, often young people, are inspired to make a difference and to push their boundaries. If the field is subject to more politicized regulations, these people may be less likely to innovate.

Tech companies have contributed to their own politicization, and the public should hold them accountable, not the government. The more the government inserts itself into the tech world, the more young innovators will be restricted in their development. The regulations people want to place on large companies will influence, and harm, the development of smaller, newer tech companies that will drive innovation.

Photo courtesy of Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images.

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