2021 Leg Session, Joshua Sharf, Media, Uncategorized

Sharf: Big Sister comes to Colorado

It is clear now, if it hadn’t been before, that the January 6th invasion of the US Capitol has become the pretext for a broad-based leftist attack on free speech, both nationally and here in Colorado.

Up to this point, many conservatives and libertarians have shrugged off the threat, arguing that as private companies, Amazon or Twitter or Facebook have the right to whatever terms of service they choose to impose.  We will find that by winning that argument, we will have lost all subsequent arguments for lack of even being heard.

Most shockingly, such proposed censorship has found support among reporters and journalists.   In January, Nancy Watzman penned an opinion piece for the Colorado Sun proposing a wide variety of government actions against social media platforms in the name of accuracy and suppressing disinformation: “We need hearings, we need studies, we need debates about various approaches: antitrust actions, requirements to make algorithms transparent, the creation of independent public oversight boards, developing public social media alternatives analogous to public media, and more.”

Using anti-trust regulation to bring Amazon back into line certainly looks appealing, especially after the company recently and oh-so-quietly slipped a “hate speech” clause into its terms of service.  After all, something like 5/6 of the American book market runs through Amazon, which certainly looks like monopoly power.  But Watzman isn’t interested in making sure that Amazon doesn’t censor legitimate debate; she wanted to make sure that she gets to be the one defining “hate speech.”  She has good company, including some close to the new Biden Administration.

The idea of an independent public oversight board might work for the police, but it’s almost impossible to see what its legitimate role would be with respect to Twitter or Complete Colorado.  And what on earth would a public social media alternative site look like?  Why should it be trusted to be impartial or even accurate in its own judgments about user-generated content?

Ms. Watzman is a former board member of the Colorado Media Project, dedicated to producing the next generation of online local journalism, to replace the fading print newspaper model.  Perhaps she can start a new non-profit, Journalists for Censorship.

She’d have plenty of company.  Whether because of political bias or out of a desire to remove the competition, large press organizations have rarely been friendly to free speech outside their own.  Back in 2006, when Congress began considering a federal shield law for journalists, the reporters who helped Congress write the first draft conveniently left off bloggers, then the most-popular form of self-publishing and independent reporting.

Recently the New York Times fretted that citizens were having “unfettered conversations” on a new app, Clubhouse.  Since Clubhouse doesn’t record conversations, there’s no way to fact-check what people might say there.  Americans’ ability to say what they like is apparently deeply disturbing to the scions at the Times.

Into the breach steps Democrat State Senator Kerry Donovan.  The word “Orwellian” gets thrown around a lot these days, but the next online English dictionary should feature a link to her bill as part of the definition.

She’s the Senate sponsor of Senate Bill 21-132, titled “Digital Communications Regulation.”  Were it to become law, this bill would regulate speech in a way that we haven’t seen since before the Revolution, when Virginia banned printing presses in order to control content.

It would create a new Digital Communications Commission that would register “digital communications platforms” for the purposes of requiring them to censor their content.  Failure to register – for a reasonable fee, of course – would be a class 2 misdemeanor.  It is at this point that I remind you that the Soviet Union and its satellites required people to register fax machines.

The law would require those platforms to scrub user-posted content of content that might “promote hate speech; undermine election integrity; disseminate intentional disinformation, conspiracy theories, or fake news.”

What constitutes a “digital communications platform?”  It might well include Complete Colorado or even a blog with comments enabled.  What constitutes “hate speech,” or a “conspiracy theory” will be firmly in the hands of unelected but thoroughly indoctrinated bureaucrats.  “Undermining election integrity” will mean demanding signature verification, not objecting to it.

The bill is so fabulously unconstitutional that even the stacked State, Veterans, & Military Affairs Committee is unlikely to send it on to the full Senate, and right now it lacks even a House sponsor.

When it comes time to hear it in committee, Sen. Donovan may well claim that she didn’t really mean everything that was in it, and that she was “just trying to start a conversation,” which would be a pretty funny defense of a law designed to squelch free speech.

Conservatives and progressives each have concerns about Big Tech, each have considered using anti-trust regulation to curb abuses, but their concerns and solutions are qualitatively quite different.  While progressives worry that social media and the internet permit hostile ideas to circulate freely, conservatives worry about being shut out of the conversation altogether.

Unfortunately, right now in Colorado, it’s progressives who are writing the laws.

Joshua Sharf is a regular contributor to Complete Colorado.

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