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The Censorship-Industrial Complex, Part 2

My testimony to the House Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government

Nine months ago, I testified and provided evidence to Congress about the existence of a Censorship Industrial Complex, a network of government agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, government contractors, and Big Tech media platforms that conspired to censor ordinary Americans and elected officials alike for holding disfavored views.

I regret to inform the Subcommittee that the scope, power, and law-breaking of the Censorship Industrial Complex are even worse than we had realized back in March.

Two days ago, my colleagues and I published the first batch of internal files from “The Cyber Threat Intelligence League,” which show US and UK military contractors working in 2019 and 2020 to both censor and turn sophisticated psychological operations and disinformation tactics, developed abroad, against the American people.

Many insist that all we identified in the Twitter Files, the Facebook Files, and the CTIL Files were legal activities by social media platforms to take down content that violated their terms of service. Facebook, X (formerly Twitter), and other Big Tech companies are privately owned and free to censor content. And government officials are free to point out wrong information, they argue.

But the First Amendment prohibits the government from abridging freedom of speech, the Supreme Court has ruled that the government “may not induce, encourage or promote private persons to accomplish what it is constitutionally forbidden to accomplish,” and there is now a large body of evidence proving that the government did precisely that.

What’s more, the whistleblower who delivered the CTIL Files to us says that its leader, a “former” British intelligence analyst, was “in the room” at the Obama White House in 2017 when she received the instructions to create a counter-disinformation project to stop a "repeat of 2016."

The US Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Information Security Agency (CISA) has been the center of gravity for much of the censorship, with the National Science Foundation financing the development of censorship and disinformation tools and other federal government agencies playing a supportive role.

Emails from CISA’s NGO and social media partners show that CISA created the Election Integrity Partnership (EIP) in 2020, which involved the Stanford Internet Observatory (SIO) and other US government contractors. EIP and its successor, the Virality Project (VP), urged Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms to censor social media posts by ordinary citizens and elected officials alike.

In 2020, the Department of Homeland Security’s CISA violated the First Amendment and interfered in the election, while in 2021, CISA and the White House violated the First Amendment and undermined America’s response to the Covid pandemic by demanding that Facebook and Twitter censor content that Facebook said was “often-true,” including about vaccine side effects.

But the abuses of power my colleagues and I have documented go well beyond censorship. They also include what appears to be an effort by government officials and contractors, including the FBI, to frame certain individuals as posing a threat of domestic terrorism for their political beliefs. 

All of this is profoundly unAmerica. One’s commitment to free speech means nothing if it does not extend to your political enemies.

In his essential new book, Liar in a Crowded Theater: Freedom of Speech in a World of Misinformation, Jeff Kosseff, a law professor at the United States Naval Academy, shows that the widespread view that the government can censor false speech and/or speech that “causes harm” is mostly wrong. The Supreme Court has allowed very few constraints on speech. For example, the test of incitement to violence remains its immediacy.

In the face of human fallibility, and the complexity of reality, America’s founders and others worldwide long ago decided that it was best to let people speak their minds almost all the time, particularly about controversial social and political issues.

I encourage Congress to defund and dismantle the governmental organizations involved in censorship. That includes phasing out funding for the  National Science Foundation’s Track F, “Trust & Authenticity in Communication Systems,” and its “Secure and Trustworthy Cyberspace (SaTC)” track. I would also encourage Congress to abolish CISA in DHS. Short of taking those steps, I would encourage significant guard rails and oversight to prevent such censorship from happening again.

Finally, I would encourage Congress to consider making Section 230 liability protections contingent upon social media platforms, known in the law as “interactive computer services,” to allow adult users to moderate their own legal content, through filters they choose, and whose algorithms are transparent to users.

I would also encourage Congress to prohibit government officials from asking the platforms from removing content, which the Supreme Court may or may not rule unconsitutional next year when it decides on the Missouri v. Biden case. Should the Court somehow decide that government requests for censorship are constitutional, then I urge Congress to require such requests be reported publicly and instantaneously so that such censorship demands occur in plain sight.

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