Apparently missing the entire controversy the White House faced just a few weeks ago regarding Homeland Security’s poorly explained Disinformation Governance Board (which has since been put on hold), the White House is trying yet again, with its new White House Task Force to Address Online Harassment and Abuse. At least this time, they didn’t launch it without any details at all. This time, there’s an official document explaining the taskforce, and the announcement came complete with a speech from VP Kamala Harris and a meeting with a strikingly one-sided group of “experts.”
So, once again, as we said with the previous disinformation board, if the goal is really to better understand the flow of information online, and how to counter it without running afoul of the 1st Amendment, that could be interesting. Harassment and abuse is a real issue on the internet. And, there are many lessons to be learned, including some really unique and creative approaches to dealing with the challenges related to such speech. Unfortunately, there are already many reasons to be concerned about this new task force — mainly in that many of the participants come from the world that believes in questionable approaches to dealing with this — such as by removing Section 230 and making companies somehow “liable” for speech, even when it’s legal.
That’s not an approach that is (1) constitutional or (2) workable. We’ve seen such systems get regularly abused to silence perfectly legitimate speech. And, of course, part of this is because while abuse and harassment are very real, there is no clear definition of what constitutes abusive speech. Hell, one of the “experts” at last week’s panel once openly harassed a supporter of Section 230 for merely reporting, neutrally, on a Supreme Court decision, suggesting that people should set up fake profiles on sites and send people to rape the supporter.
It is difficult to take the White House seriously in trying to “stop” online harassment when it would platform a harasser like that.
There are also other concerns about the task force. An unnamed White House official brushed off free speech concerns that were raised by a Washington Post reporter:
“We are very mindful of the First Amendment issues,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly discuss the White House’s plans. “But banning threatening speech is not protected by the First Amendment. So while we are going to carefully navigate those issues, we are also going to remain laser-focused on the non-speech aspects.”
There’s some awkward wording here. Even though this official says that “banning threatening speech is not protected” it sounds like they mean “threatening speech is not protected by the 1st Amendment, and therefore okay to ban.” But… that’s just fundamentally wrong in nearly all cases. There is a very, very, very narrow sliver of threatening speech — that focused on inciting imminent lawless action — that is not protected, but almost none of the actual abuse and harassment that occurs online goes anywhere near that level.
There are some good things a task force like this could obviously do — some of which appears to be part of its mission. Things like the following seem great:
increasing access to survivor-centered services, information, and support for victims, and increasing training and technical assistance for Federal, State, local, Tribal, and territorial governments as well as for global organizations and entities in the fields of criminal justice, health and mental health services, education, and victim services;
That seems like a useful thing. However, where it gets scary is when it starts dipping into “examining existing Federal laws, regulations, and policies.”
And, look, at this very moment, there’s a half decent chance that in 30 months we’ll have a President DeSantis in office. And let’s remember that, in Florida, DeSantis has put in place programs to effectively block teachers from teaching about race or gender issues out of fear that they could get sued. He’s also directly punished companies like Walt Disney, falsely claiming that it’s a “woke” corporation. How do you think a President DeSantis will make use of a task force that suggests new laws and regulations to stop “harassment” and “abuse?”
This is not difficult to play out, but for whatever reason, supporters of these kinds of things seem to think that their friends will always be in power. That’s not how it works.
Again, there could be something useful in bringing together experts in harassment, along with various organizations that have experimented with ways of countering harassment, not through legal enforcement, but with design choices and tools that minimize such things. Invite company CEOs like Blockparty’s Tracy Chou who has thought deeply about how to use technology to fight harassment.
Instead, we always end up with the same people, who seem to think that the law is the only way to fight harassment, even as it’s protected by the 1st Amendment.
And, of course, just as with the Disinformation Governance Board, Republicans are already going after this effort, once again claiming that this is just a “ministry of truth” designed to target conservative speech. Even if that’s not true, just the fact that they believe it is gives them even more justification the next time they’re in power to use the very same tools and setup to actually stifle speech they dislike.
You would think that after four years of a Trump administration abusing the levers of power that once the Democrats regained power they would, maybe, put in place more safeguards, rather than putting more weapons in place for Republicans to use next time they’re in power. But, apparently, they can’t think even that far ahead, and that should disqualify them from being taken seriously.