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[Redacted]: Internet Freedom and Censorship under Trump

The freedom of speech and expression is not just a core tenant of the American way of life, it is the principle that allows our democracy to function and flourish. The great diversity of people, religions, and creeds that make up the United States of America peacefully coexist because of the constitutional guarantee that we, as Americans, can express opinions that dissent from the majority’s view without fear of reprisal or censorship by the government.

The rapid expansion of readily available and affordable internet access, along with the explosive growth of social media networks have also made online communication the preferred method of expressing and exchanging ideas. While the internet has given a megaphone to millions of people who otherwise wouldn’t have had their voices heard, it has also become a de facto requirement to effectively engage in public discourse.

When you have access to the internet, you have more voice. When you have better tools for sharing, you have more voice. When you have fewer laws limiting your speech, you have more voice.
Mark Zuckerberg

A host of challenges exist to ensuring that all Americans have the ability to express themselves online, challenges that the sitting president will have to address if we want to ensure equal access to free speech online. The past several years have seen concerted efforts by law enforcement and national security agencies to scrub the internet of materials deemed to be “terrorist propaganda,” often by putting pressure on social media sites and content providers to report and remove their users’ objectionable content.

Revelation of bulk data collection programs set up by the NSA to spy on American citizens such as Prism have had a measurable, chilling effect on online speech and the willingness of Americans to engage in dissident topics on the internet. At the same time, the growth of fast internet service has been decidedly uneven, with most of the growth occurring in wealthy urban areas while leaving Americans who live in rural and poor areas with slower and often pricier service.

There is a good reason to be concerned that a Trump presidency could pose a threat to freedom of speech on the internet: the president-elect has put forth numerous proposals during his campaign that would sharply curtail online civil liberties and freedoms. It remains to be seen whether Trump intends to follow through on his proposals and campaign promises (and many of his more outlandish proposals may not gain much traction even if Trump does push for them), but online civil liberties may well be in for a rough four years.

Crackdown on Online Terrorist Materials

Shortly after the Islamic extremist-inspired shootings in San Bernardino, California, both Facebook and Twitter announced that they were going to step up efforts to remove accounts and posts associated with terrorist groups. More recently, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Twitter announced a partnership to combat the dissemination of terrorist propaganda and recruiting material online by creating a shared database of online terrorist materials and their fingerprints to make automated identification and takedown of such materials faster.

We're losing a lot of people because of the Internet. We have to see Bill Gates and a lot of different people that really understand what's happening... about, maybe in certain areas, closing that Internet up in some way.
Donald J. Trump

While efforts to remove terrorist propaganda online may be laudable there is a serious risk they will lead to censorship of legitimate dissident speech on the internet. Computer algorithms aren’t particularly good at differentiating terrorist material from legitimate speech (most simply look for prohibited keywords), and people can and do make biased or misinformed judgements about what constitutes “objectionable” material.

Just this July, Facebook came under fire for removing posts, photos, and even entire accounts for people having legitimate discussions about the death of a prominent Kashmiri separatist at the hands of the Indian army. In its response to the controversy, Facebook acknowledged that “some content was removed in error,” but it largely defended its practice of removing content it considered to be “praise” for a terrorist organization.

Tump’s position on removing objectionable material on the internet seems clear: he is strongly in favor of it. During a campaign rally in December 2015, Trump called for censoring parts of the internet to curb dissemination of terrorist propaganda online. It remains to be seen how serious Trump is about censoring large swaths of the internet and there are many questions about the technical feasibility of such a censorship system, but it seems likely that President Trump will at least encourage efforts to remove objectionable material from the internet.

National Security Spy Programs

I want surveillance of certain mosques if that's OK. We've had it before.
Donald J. Trump

There is also the looming specter of the NSA’s “bulk data collection” spy programs revealed by Edward Snowden. Several studies conducted by Facebook and Wikipedia demonstrated that these spy programs have a measurable chilling effect on online discourse, making people think twice about searching for dissident topics or engaging in online discussion that they think might be out of the mainstream, lest they end up on one of the NSA’s watch lists.

Trump has publicly expressed his support of NSA surveillance programs such as Prism that collect the communications and internet traffic of large numbers of American citizens, and will likely continue those spy programs once in office. Trump also infamously stated during the campaign that he wants to set up a surveillance program specifically targeting American muslims, suggesting that he may seek to expand government-sponsored surveillance of American citizens.

FCC’s Uncertain Future

It is uncertain whether Trump intends to repeal the FCC’s 2015 Title II reclassification of fixed and mobile carriers and corresponding net neutrality rules. Trump himself has been notably quiet on the subject, but he did name two outspoken critics of the FCC’s Title II reclassification to his transition team.

Net neutrality rules, among other things, prohibits your internet service provider (ISP) from censoring or otherwise altering your internet data. A full repeal of net neutrality will likely have broad repercussions for free speech on the internet, as it frees ISPs and mobile carriers to filter or manipulate your internet traffic when it suits their business practices (or at the behest of law enforcement and the NSA).

Most of the original motivations for having an FCC have gone away. Telecommunications network providers and ISPs are rarely, if ever, monopolies. If there are instances where there are monopolies, it would seem overkill to have an entire federal agency dedicated to ex ante regulation of their services.
Mark Jamison, Tech Policy Advisor to President-Elect Trump

There is also speculation that the very existence of the FCC may be in jeopardy under a Trump administration. Mark Jamison, core member of Trump’s technology transition team, authored a blog post back in October with the provocative title, “Do we need the FCC?” in which he argues that the FCC should have the scope of its powers sharply reduced or be dissolved entirely.

Although over 90% of Americans have access to some form of internet access, only 53% of rural Americans have access to high-speed broadband internet service (defined to be 25Mbps down/3Mbps up or faster). Providing internet service to these underserved areas is often expensive with little prospect for revenue to offset the infrastructure investments, so investment by ISPs in these areas is scarce.

The FCC under the Obama administration has been a strong advocate for increasing internet access to rural and poor neighborhoods through its Connect America Fund (CAF), which provides funding and incentives to companies that build networks in underserved areas. Without the FCC to administer the CAF, it is uncertain whether the program would continue, or what would take its place, possibly stalling progress on bringing high-speed broadband internet to these underserved neighborhoods and furthering the divide between urban and rural internet speeds.

Photo Credit: Marcos Mesa Sam Wordley / shutterstock.com

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