ICYMI - A review of the major web censorship issues that President Biden will face during his next four years in office including Section 230, open access to research, and policing misinformation on social media.

By Paul Bischoff TECH WRITER, PRIVACY ADVOCATE AND VPN EXPERT @pabischoff first published at: https://www.comparitech.com/blog/vpn-privacy/biden-internet-censorship/ February 24, 2021

Will President Biden try to censor the web?

President Biden took office at a critical junction for the future of  the internet. His administration must decide on issues that will have  long-lasting impacts on free speech and the free flow of information  online. In this article, we’ll discuss the major censorship issues that  Biden will have to contend with in the next four years.

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Policing online speech and Section 230

If, how, and by whom online speech should be policed is an ongoing  debate. In an age of misinformation, disinformation, scams, abuse, hate  speech, harassment, and incitement, many people want tighter controls on  online speech. But who creates and enforces those rules, and the  government’s role in this, is controversial.

Many free speech advocates would prefer if the government did not  have a hand in policing speech, at least not without due process and  proper litigation. Some say it should be the job of tech companies like  Facebook and YouTube to police themselves according to their own rules  and guidelines. Others say the government should set those guidelines.

One popular idea is that the government should hold tech companies  responsible for speech posted by their users. This is the basic argument  behind the repeal of Section 230 of the Communications  Decency Act. Section 230 states, “No provider or user of an interactive  computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any  information provided by another content provider.”

Section 230 became a pillar of what the internet is today. If it were  removed, tech companies would have to be much more careful about what  they allow to be posted, likely requiring them to pre-screen all  content. This might reduce misinformation and abuse, but it would be  extremely burdensome for content moderation teams and likely result in a lot of censorship.

During the run up to the 2020 election, President Trump lashed out  against Twitter and other social media companies because they labeled or  censored his posts. He rallied his supporters to advocate for the  repeal of Section 230. Doing so would certainly be bad for Twitter, but  it would probably have no material impact on Twitter’s censorship  policy. Remember that Section 230 holds Twitter accountable for what  users post, not what it decides to censor. It seems Trump just wanted to  punish Twitter, not change its censorship policy.

But even though Trump was vehemently opposed to Section 230, Biden  didn’t take the opposite side. Democrats have their own concerns about  Section 230, and Biden publicly stated it should be revoked in January 2021 in order to stem misinformation online.

As of the time of writing, Democrats and the Biden administration are considering amending the law,  rather than repealing it entirely. They want to hold tech companies  more responsible for moderating content on their services, but it’s not  clear how such an amendment will take shape.

It’s worth mentioning that Biden tended to be on the winning side of  censorship more often than not during his campaign. In one notable  example, Twitter and Facebook censored an article published by the New  York Post alleging the then-candidate’s son’s ties to a Ukrainian Energy  firm.

Biden’s website says it plans to create a task force that will recommend how governments, tech companies, schools, and other  organizations should deal with online harassment. The task force’s  recommendations could include regulating tech companies or changes to  Section 230.

Government-funded research and reports

Most academic research in the United States is federally funded and thus paid for by taxpayers, but much of it is not public.  Academic publishers act as gatekeepers, charging libraries and  individuals exorbitant fees to access research that was publicly funded.  Often the authors submit their research for free, so the profits are  solely harvested by publishers.

Open access initiatives seek to allow public access to publicly funded academic research at no cost and with no penalty for sharing.

Biden has openly supported removing barriers to fast, public access to research papers and data.

Prior to Biden, the Trump administration censored research, data, and  other materials relating to climate change. The previous administration  also issued a rule that allowed the Environmental Protection Agency  (EPA) to downplay or ignore medical data related to pollution and  exposure to toxic substances.

The Biden administration has signaled it has no interest in limiting  the ability of federal agencies to use the “best available science.”  Climate change is now a front-and-center subject on environmental  agencies’ websites again.

Censorship in other countries

Censorship of the internet is common in autocratic countries. Content  blocks are usually carried out by internet service providers at the  behest of the government. Those in power use censorship to silence  dissent, prevent opponents from communicating and organizing, and keep  out external influence.

In 2011, Biden gave a speech in which he warned countries that engaging in censorship wouldn’t reap  the internet’s economic benefits. He hasn’t explicitly said much more on  other countries’ web censorship since then.

As vice president in 2013, Biden weighed into Chinese authorities for withholding visas from Western reporters working in the country.

End-to-end encryption

Although end-to-end encryption (E2EE) is more of a privacy issue than  a censorship one, it’s still worth mentioning here. End-to-end  encryption ensures that only the recipient of a message or file can  decrypt it. Even the developer of the app that facilitates the  communication cannot decrypt the message.

E2EE allows two or more parties to privately communicate without worrying about snooping by any third parties. Advocates say it’s good for privacy, but opponents say it protects criminals,  which is why some people want it banned. It’s used in many file  transfer and communication apps, including WhatsApp and Telegram.

Banning E2EE, or requiring backdoor access for law enforcement, would  give governments unrestricted access to private communications, which  in turn would have a chilling effect on free speech. People don’t  communicate freely if they know they’re being monitored. Furthermore,  cybersecurity experts argue that an encryption backdoor for law  enforcement would also be a backdoor for criminals and nation-state  threat actors.

The Obama administration engaged in no small amount of cyberspying  and bulk data collection while Biden was VP, as revealed by Edward  Snowden in 2013. Those policies don’t look good in the eyes of privacy  advocates, but it’s not entirely clear where Biden stands on E2EE at the time of writing.

Biden-Harris” by deckerme licensed under CC BY 2.0

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