Ho hum, nothing to see here, just Congress demanding to know the funding of a privately-held free-speech forum. What could go wrong? Carolyn Maloney, the Democratic chair of the House Oversight Committee in this session, sent a demand to FBI director Christopher Wray demanding a “robust investigation” into the ownership and operation of Parler. Maloney wants to find out whether hostile foreign governments funded the unmoderated forums on which all sorts of alleged threats and conspiring took place:
The chairwoman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee on Thursday asked the FBI to conduct a “robust examination” of the alleged role in the Jan. 6 Capitol siege of Parler, the now-disabled social media site that bristled with violent chatter before and after rioters stormed the Capitol in a rampage that left five people dead.
Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), the chairwoman, said the request is a step toward opening a formal committee investigation into sites that may encourage violence, including Parler. It became prominent last year as a freewheeling alternative to Twitter, gaining popularity in particular among conservatives.
She said the committee will begin its own formal investigation of Parler and similar sites and that it was a “top priority” for her to learn answers to a range of questions about Parler, including its alleged ties to Russia, as documented in news reports. Her letter Thursday singled out Parler’s use of a Russian-owned web-services company, DDOS-Guard, that also has Russian government clients and may leave Parler vulnerable to data requests by Russian agencies.
“I am going to get to the bottom of who owns and funds social media platforms like Parler that condone and create violence,” Maloney said in an interview with The Washington Post.
Congress can discuss anything it likes. But should they sic the FBI on a speech platform they don’t like in general, and which has immunity from the accountability Maloney demands? The Washington Post, which is itself another form of a speech platform (especially in its comments section), points this out later in their report:
Congress has wide-ranging authority to inquire about private companies, but Parler and other social media sites also enjoy broad legal immunity for what others post on their platforms through Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. While there is ample evidence of hateful conversation ahead of the attack on the Capitol and calls for violence against members of Congress, those were made by Parler’s users — many of them using pseudonyms — a fact limiting Parler’s responsibility for them.
Congress can debate whatever it wants. The FBI can, and almost certainly will, investigate the users who posted threats and appeared to organize for violence, including the Capitol assault on January 6. However, Congress doesnt really have any authority to order the FBI to conduct a “robust investigation” into the ownership of the platform without some sort of evidence of criminal wrongdoing on the part of the owners, not just the users. Congress passed the Section 230 liability shield for that very reason, which allows platforms to avoid the consequences of user-posted material.
The FBI is already conducting its investigation into the Capitol assault, of course, and are using social media posts (including Parler) to identify and prosecute those who took part. Wired reports that crowdsourcing efforts are helping that along, via Twitchy:
WHEN HACKERS EXPLOITED a bug in Parler to download all of the right-wing social media platform’s contents last week, they were surprised to find that many of the pictures and videos contained geolocation metadata revealing exactly how many of the site’s users had taken part in the invasion of the US Capitol building just days before. But the videos uploaded to Parler also contain an equally sensitive bounty of data sitting in plain sight: thousands of images of unmasked faces, many of whom participated in the Capitol riot. Now one website has done the work of cataloging and publishing every one of those faces in a single, easy-to-browse lineup.
Late last week, a website called Faces of the Riot appeared online, showing nothing but a vast grid of more than 6,000 images of faces, each one tagged only with a string of characters associated with the Parler video in which it appeared. The site’s creator tells WIRED that he used simple open source machine learning and facial recognition software to detect, extract, and deduplicate every face from the 827 videos that were posted to Parler from inside and outside the Capitol building on January 6, the day when radicalized Trump supporters stormed the building in a riot that resulted in five people’s deaths. The creator of Faces of the Riot says his goal is to allow anyone to easily sort through the faces pulled from those videos to identify someone they may know or recognize who took part in the mob, or even to reference the collected faces against FBI wanted posters and send a tip to law enforcement if they spot someone.
“Everybody who is participating in this violence, what really amounts to an insurrection, should be held accountable,” says the site’s creator, who asked for anonymity to avoid retaliation. “It’s entirely possible that a lot of people who were on this website now will face real-life consequences for their actions.”
Most people would agree — the people who perpetrated, planned, and/or participated in the assault should be held accountable. Social-media platforms that hosted the material can certainly be criticized for their moderation policies, but Maloney’s effort amounts to an escalation of an already-extant effort by Congress to force owners to become government-censors-by-proxy through political and now legal intimidation. That’s on top of the whiff of the Salem trials we’re already seeing in this effort, a very bad echo of the Russiagate hysteria of 2017-19.
The consequences for this pressure could be enormous. Blaming the platforms for the actions of their users, and now making those platform owners potentially criminally as well as civilly liable, will result in the destruction of these free-speech forums regardless of moderation policy. No one in their right mind would leave their liberty subject to the dumbest commenter on their sites. That was the reason Congress passed Section 230 in the first place. The endgame for Maloney would be to turn the Internet into a commercial-only zone where no political speech takes place, and even user-review sections would likely disappear under the weight of potential liabilities.
Simply put, let’s go after criminals … not people who set up forums for speech of all kinds.
Update: Maybe the Salem witch trials isn’t quite the best analogy. What we’re talking about here is a new version of the House Un-American Activities Committee, a fairly decent parallel to this intrusion of Congress into political speech. And that one involved Russians, too!