Why online freedom must be preserved
Now is not the perfect time to advocate for limited government.
Despite Bill Clinton’s famous 1996 statement that “the era of great government is over,” it never really ended. The Conservatives have failed to cancel growing social assistance programs, while government spending and the national debt reliably rise regardless of who is in power. At a minimum, the power of the federal government will remain the same; more likely, the government will continue to expand its reach. This growing scope is evident and of concern to the increasingly important issues of online regulation.
The federal government is currently attempting alarming intrusions into finance and online discourse with ill-advised regulatory efforts. In either case, elected officials assure the public that they are simply trying to protect Americans even as they contemplate consolidating government power over our daily lives and our most basic rights. Misguided attempts by lawmakers to regulate the internet could stifle Americans’ financial freedoms and free speech as the internet becomes increasingly vital for the expression of those freedoms. Supporters of limited government should therefore shift their focus from failed tax battles to more fundamental issues of online freedom.
Few issues better illustrate the current conflict between the federal government and freedom than cryptocurrency (crypto). Essentially, cryptocurrencies are decentralized digital currencies that use blockchain technology to verify transactions. Currently, they are completely immune to political influence since central banks cannot manipulate crypto. Crypto’s appeal comes mainly from justifiable distrust of the federal government and the financial system, based on a history of the Fed’s failure to control inflation and fuel a potential market bubble. This distrust is driving Americans more and more to invest and use cryptocurrencies, a revolutionary opportunity that flawed regulatory efforts could stifle.
The government’s motives behind a crypto crackdown are based on preserving government power, not protecting the people. While critics of the crypto focus on its potential use in money laundering, its transfer of monetary controls to ordinary crypto owners could free monetary policy from government monopolies. Criminal uses of crypto are legitimate concerns, but the reckless ban on cryptocurrency promoted by Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., would hurt investors in the name of greater nebulous good. Sherman and his supporters claim they want to protect investors, but their ill-advised ban would wipe out billions of dollars invested in crypto, preserving exclusive government control over monetary policy while harming millions of U.S. crypto investors. Whatever the merits or lack of crypto, regulation must serve the interests of the people, not the self-interest of the government.
In addition to self-interested crypto regulation, online speech regulation poses an even greater threat to our fundamental freedoms. Free societies depend on freedom of expression, which now lives mainly on the Internet. The democratization offered by the Internet has given ordinary citizens increased political weight while reducing the hold of traditional media on information. This allows us to access a wealth of information and engage in ways that were unimaginable just a few decades ago. Despite the toxicity of social media, a free internet is now essential for free speech and, by extension, a free society.
To date, the government has largely left the regulation of online speech to individual companies. This approach is not without flaws, as social media companies like Twitter and Facebook have a bad record on police speech. Therefore, reviews from both sides of the aisle are call for increased regulation of tech companies, conservatives lambasting the perceived liberal bias of Big Tech while liberals denounce widespread disinformation.
But that’s no excuse for government involvement, a dangerous step that would only exacerbate the problems of speech online. And while Democrats have often focused on hate speech online, many of their bills would go way beyond that concern. Politicians have found a solution to the constitutional pitfalls of direct speech regulation: they threaten to change crucial liability protections, hoping that companies cash speech moderation policies in response. Those protections, ridiculed by politicians as freebies to the Big Techs, allow both free speech and moderation of online content, and their repeal would likely lead to more online censorship. This is still de facto talk-through regulation, albeit indirect, as companies aren’t legally obligated to make changes. Disturbingly, the inherently political process of tweaking these protections could give politicians of all political backgrounds, from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, DN.Y., to Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, a say. about what you can communicate online.
This sneaky approach was fueled by Biden complaints that Facebook is “killing people” with COVID-19 disinformation on its platforms, Trump’s constant complaints Big Tech’s political bias, and a set of laws in Congress that could muzzle free speech online. Their ultimate goal is not to protect Americans or preserve the fundamental right to free speech, but to ensure partisan control of speech. All of this is based on a deeply flawed and reductive view that the Internet is an irremediable threat to society, full of malice and disinformation. This criticism is not without merit, but it is far too pessimistic. While the Internet may not be a friend of democracy, it is a sworn enemy of tyranny.
The Internet remains a powerful asset for freedom, democracy and resistance. Online censorship and Internet shutdowns are part of the authoritative playbook for good reason: The Internet allows for the free exchange of ideas. In the past year alone we have seen the internet sponsored by the government stops in Myanmar, Cuba, Belarus and elsewhere, as oppressed peoples around the world struggle for freedom. This is because the activists organized their movements online while alerting the world to the atrocities of these regimes. While I am not suggesting that supporters of strict internet regulation support these extremes, their efforts to regulate online speech are an alarming step towards authoritarian restrictions on speech. A free internet is the backbone of a modern democratic society, and it’s a crucial safeguard against authoritarianism here in the United States. Let’s make sure it stays that way.
The fight for limited government is hardly lost, but it should take on very different dimensions. Americans desperately need to understand both the issues and the threats involved. Free societies are founded on free exchange, both financially and politically. When this freedom decreases, democracy becomes vulnerable. Social Security and paid family leave don’t threaten our freedoms, but arbitrary crypto crackdowns and political restrictions on speech certainly do. That is why we must fight unnecessary government intrusions, however well-meaning they may be. To resist a slow drift towards authoritarianism, don’t fund bureaucracy, defend the Internet.