Don’t Respond to Attacks on Our Democracy by Weakening It

“I love [freedom of the press] out of consideration for the evils it prevents much more than for the good it does,” Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in “Democracy in America.” Were he alive today, would de Tocqueville feel the same about our online freedom?

The internet has been the greatest innovation for the free exchange of thought and ideas since the invention of the printing press. Just a generation ago, people needed vast resources to share their opinions with millions. Now, with just a few dollars, small groups and individuals can make their voices heard and effect real change.

Yet some lawmakers in Washington want to silence those voices with legislation that would stifle speech by making it harder for groups and individuals to get their message out. The bill’s authors call it the “Honest Ads Act,” but it’s honest Americans who would have the most to fear from it. 

Bill supporters tout that it will prevent foreign nationals from running political ads. That’s a laudable goal, but we already have Federal Election Commission rules prohibiting that. The legislation would regulate online political speech and by doing so, stifle it. Spending even small sums of resources to promote a message which discusses “national legislative issue of public importance” would trigger a host of reporting requirements that would lead many to question whether promoting their message was worth it.

It’s not hard to see why an organization speaking out against actions by the federal government they feel are unjust might not want to report to the government how much money they are spending and who they are targeting with their messages. 

Imposing those kinds of barriers to speech doesn’t make our political dialogue more honest, it makes it more limited by frightening people into silence. 

Some social media companies have already imposed new rules governing what they consider to be political ads. For large, powerful organizations, with money and lawyers at their disposal, these rules will be nothing more than a nuisance. Those with more limited resources will be shut out.

We also know that requirements forcing small nonprofits or local-issue campaigns run by individuals to reveal private information, including their name and address can expose their members or backers to personal attacks and harassment, or worse. It has happened repeatedly across the country.

Recently one woman in Florida created a Facebook and Instagram page criticizing a decision by her local city council. In response, the city sued Facebook to get her private information and silence her. Imagine that just by speaking she would have to make that information known to the government.

This is exactly why the founders protected speech – especially political speech. A powerful government shouldn’t be able to intimidate citizens into silence. A minority view shouldn’t be barred from public discourse for fear of retaliation or threats. And private citizens should not have to turn over their personal information to the very government that they are trying to hold accountable.

People should be able to support causes and groups that engage in public policy debate without fear that they are on a government list.

It’s ironic that the Honest Ads Act was again proposed at the recent congressional hearings looking into the privacy of Americans’ social media accounts. While Congress seemed to scold companies over privacy, some, like Sen. Amy Klobuchar from Minnesota, are eager for the government to have your data.

As the ACLU notes, “the right to remain anonymous is a fundamental component of our right to free speech, and it applies every bit as much in the digital world as it does in the physical. In the words of the U.S. Supreme Court in McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission, ‘anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority.’”

Privacy is at times an essential catalyst to the free and open exchange of ideas. Without it, many worthwhile conversations would simply never take place. It would be a bitter irony if the American response to Russian interference in our democracy was to undermine one of the key tenets of that democracy.

Americans are capable of evaluating different points of view without a helping hand from Big Brother. For private companies to assume otherwise and put policies in place to filter information is condescending. But for the government to impose laws and regulations of the same nature is dangerous.

David Barnes is policy manager for Americans for Prosperity.

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