The Trump administration has been replete with controversies with regard to various government policies. One of the controversies that have gained a lot of traction in recent months is the one pertaining to internet censorship. As of late, there appears to be consensus among social media outfits and Internet users in general as to the advancement of Internet censorship under the Trump administration.
Is Internet censorship really advancing the Trump administration?
Censorship has always been a contentious area in the United States. With the advent of the Internet and the massive popularity of social media, internet censorship, in particular, has always been looked upon with great disfavor by various sectors of the population. To better understand how Internet censorship is advancing under the Trump administration, it is important to look at the series of events that have transpired over the past year.
The issue with regard to Internet censorship in the United States have caught the attention of a greater international audience when Twitter filed a lawsuit against the federal government in response to the Department of Homeland Security’s demand for Twitter to reveal information as to the identity of user/s running a Twitter account criticizing the present administration. While the DHS thereafter withdrew such demand, the issue drew nowhere near to a close given the events preceding the said demand.
The demand made by the DHS was an aftermath of the bill signed by Trump on April 2018. The said bill released Internet service providers (ISPs) in the United States from their obligation to protect data gathered from their consumers. In effect, the said law operates to put in jeopardy the privacy of Internet users, thereby making it easier for entities to conduct Internet surveillance sans legal sanctions.
The aforementioned policy alone does not suffice to censor the Internet as a whole, but it does give way to Internet censorship. By releasing ISPs from their obligation to protect user data, the Trump administration is in fact giving rise to conditions which will allow the government to effectively curtail dissent online. This is particularly significant because social media, as of late, has been an effective platform in voicing dissent and in disseminating information across a vast following in a short span of time. Stripping the anonymity afforded by social media may have a chilling effect on its users, particularly vocal dissenters.
It must be noted, however, that the demand for user information made by the DHS to Twitter was by no means the first time that the government made such demand. In fact, social media companies have in multiple cases aided the government in curbing criminal activity by handing over user data in order to help investigations. What makes this particular move by DHS significant is the fact that the user data being demanded is not one related to any criminal activity, the same being grounded on nothing more than critical views of the current administration made by the account in question.
Another move by the Trump administration which has also been cited as controversial in relation to Internet censorship is the signing into law of the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) which provided exceptions to the Communications Decency Act (CDA). The CDA essentially divests online platforms of legal liability for posts made by their users. FOSTA, on the other hand, operates so as to make online platforms subject to legal repercussions should they host advertisements related to sex work.Provisions of FOSTA effectively impinges on online free speech. As such, the same has been met by rigorous opposition not only from Internet users, but also from internet advocacy organizations and no less than the Department of Justice.
Aside from such concrete moves made by the government under the Trump administration, Trump’s statements likewise reek of support for Internet censorship. For example, Trump has, on multiple occasions, issued threats of sanctioning Google should the latter refuse to accommodate his political demands. Such political demands by Trump were made in relation to his allegations that Google’s algorithm is rigged. Trump suggests that Google is performing illegal activity in light of the negative search results relating to Trump and his administration. Given the same, Trump is threatening Google for retribution.
Such statements by Trump, albeit remaining to be mere verbal threats, are not too far from a Chinese-style Internet censorship – or at least that appears to be the goal. Sure enough, the United States has numerous laws and constitutional safeguards which protects the freedom of speech and expression, be it online or offline. Nevertheless, Trump’s threats on online companies and platforms – and no less than a company of Google’s size – do not bode well for online free speech. If anything, the attempts made by Trump and the administration in pressuring online companies and platforms to cater to the demands of the government appear to be a dangerous step towards a more stringent Internet censorship.
The sheer size and reach of the Internet and social media platforms certainly warrant some form of oversight and scrutiny on the part of the government if Internet users are to be protected. However, such need for some mechanism of oversight and scrutiny does not warrant outright curtailment of online speech, especially in cases where there appears to be no compelling public need for such curtailment. Under the Trump administration, it seems as though that certain actions of the government which impinges on online free speech are based on nothing more than expression of dissent online.
In addition to concrete governmental actions bordering on Internet censorship, statements and threats issued by Trump has also sparked outrage and concern among Internet users, online companies and platforms, and advocacy groups. Such statements and threats appear to lay the groundwork for a more tangible censorship of the Internet, something which will no doubt have a massive effect on democratic participation considering the reach of the Internet especially in the United States. Hence, although a Chinese-style Internet censorship has yet to be seen in the United States and will not be easy to implement, the same does not seem to be a definite impossibility under the Trump administration.