Tech

The Biden Administration Must Work to Protect Free Expression Online

As President Joe Biden and his G7 counterparts prepare to gather for the upcoming leaders’ summit, we encourage the Biden administration here in the United States to focus on an issue of paramount importance to the American people: the preservation and proliferation of freedom of expression online.

Along with Americans across the political and ideological spectrum, we support keeping the internet open and accessible to all. Per a recent Ipsos poll conducted on behalf of the American Edge Project, there is widespread consensus among independents (81 percent), Republicans (79 percent) and Democrats (60 percent) regarding the critical need to keep the internet open. With near-universal agreement, Americans also recognize that an open and accessible internet is important to freedom of expression (96 percent), government accountability (94 percent), and America’s role in the world (93 percent).

Nearly three-fourths of voters, meanwhile, want Biden and his administration to prioritize this issue – a percentage on par with health care reform. Such parity with an issue as salient as health care only emphasizes the extent to which Americans value an internet that reflects, rather than restricts, American principles, particularly as it relates to free speech.

Our system stands in stark contrast to those of other countries around the world that aim to suppress dissent and stifle privacy rights. Our citizens, government and domestic companies are leagues ahead of “techno-autocracies” like China and Russia, where tools of the modern internet are exploited for egregious purposes.

Earlier this year, for instance, a New York Times report highlighted a harrowing and ever-growing Google spreadsheet filled with more than 2,000 examples of how the Chinese government punished people for the “slightest bit of criticism.” And yet, as extensive as it is, the list – entitled “An Inventory of Speech Crimes in China in Recent Years” – still fails to capture the full scope of the country’s “crackdown on speech” as “most punishment takes place behind closed doors.” Days earlier, the Times also detailed how the Russian government has been putting in place the “technological and legal infrastructure to clamp down on freedom of speech online, leading to frequent predictions that the country could be heading toward internet censorship akin to China’s.”

As foreign governments with fundamentally different values seek to spread their vision of a closed, censored internet, it is imperative for the Biden administration to strengthen an internet that is open, accessible and supportive of free expression. It is therefore critical to support America’s domestic tech innovators as they fight on the front lines to defend the foundation of 21st-century free expression and democracy.

Any agency policy aimed at curbing our country’s innovators threatens to create a vacuum for others to step in and fill the void. Those readily waiting in the wings to do so include the aforementioned regimes who misuse the internet to censor their own citizens and persecute political opponents. Nearly 9 in 10 voters polled agree that the ability to speak freely on the internet is one of the values that separates the United States from those authoritarian countries, and for this reason, a solid plurality of American voters believe the United States should lead the way in setting global internet standards.

Maintaining our country’s technological edge in the global marketplace is not merely a matter of preserving America’s prosperity, but of preserving America’s principles. And so, the Biden administration must work with diligence and determination to ensure the United States remains the place of free expression and where the world’s foremost technology companies call home.

 

Former U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, North Dakota Democrat, and former U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, Oregon Republican, are advisory board co-chairs of the American Edge Project.

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