PEN America, an advocacy organization that defends writers, journalism, and free speech in general, asked Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren (D–Mass.) 10 pressing questions about how she would combat various threats to free expression. Warren responded by attacking Facebook repeatedly—indeed, she mentioned the social media company more times than she mentioned President Donald Trump.
As evidenced by her answers, Warren believes that Big Tech is one of the greatest threats to free expression, if not the greatest. (Her proposed solutions to this supposed problem are themselves significant threats to free expression.)
After briefly discussing the need to eject Trump from the White House, Warren quickly pivoted to her real hobby horse:
We also need to crack down on the spread of disinformation that severely undermines free expression and legitimate journalism. Once again, we’re seeing Facebook throw up its hands in the face of disinformation campaigns on its platforms, because when profit comes up against protecting democracy, Facebook chooses profit. We need to stop this generation of big tech companies from profiting off of lies to the American people. That’s why my administration will make big, structural changes to the tech sector—including breaking up giant tech companies like Amazon, Facebook, and Google—and requiring large tech platforms to be designated as “Platform Utilities” and broken apart from any participant on that platform. My administration will also appoint regulators committed to reversing illegal and anti-competitive tech mergers.
I’ve bolded the above sentence because it confirms that Warren believes the government should take action to deter those who spread “disinformation” online. This is highly relevant since media outlets that recently reported a Warren plan to fight disinformation were accused of getting the story wrong. Complaints weren’t unreasonable; CNBC used the headline, “Elizabeth Warren proposes criminal penalties for spreading disinformation online,” which was too broad since she had only proposed criminal penalties for spreading disinformation about polling locations (an illegal form of voter disenfranchisement, in Warren’s view).
“With the first elections in the Democratic primary race closing in, Sen. Elizabeth Warren released a plan this week to combat digital disinformation,” wrote Boston.com‘s Nik DeCosta-Klipa. “Then—in what was both an ironic, if not unpredictable, twist and a “perfect case study” of the problem—the plan fell victim to false information itself.”
It’s true that Warren has not specifically proposed criminal penalties for the broader category of disinformation. But based on the above interview with PEN America, it’s perfectly clear that she does think the government has a role to play in suppressing disinformation broadly defined. When the feds “crack down” on something, it is often by regulating it, making it illegal, and penalizing the people and institutions who defy the crackdown. It’s thus not crazy to think that Warren is calling for the criminalization of a kind of speech she does not like—since that’s exactly what she’s calling for.
This theme of aggressively regulating, breaking up, and punishing tech companies is one that Warren returns to over and over again in the PEN America interview. She calls on congressional and state authorities to open up investigations of Facebook. She says that Section 230, which shields tech companies from some legal liability if unprotected speech appears on their platforms, should be reformed. This is the true irony of her free speech defense plan: It involves the government ordering private companies to police more kinds of speech.
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