The growing willingness by U.S. Big Tech to censor political debate highlights a hypocrisy that belies any notion that expelling conservative voices is an act of principle rather than something more cynical and sinister. President Donald Trump may have been intemperate, but violence linked to his Twitter account is more debatable. Certainly, he exacerbated America’s political polarization, but no more so than former Office of Management and Budget nominee Neera Tandren and Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.). Political polarization is a problem and the tone of American political leaders and cable news pundits neither elucidate nor help, but censorship is not the answer.
A broader question for Big Tech is why they censor relatively innocuous commentary in the United States, but continue to provide an open platform for terrorists and apologists for genocide outside the country. Trump’s tweets may have been odious, but nothing compared to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s former president who denied the Holocaust and called for Israel to be wiped off the map, remains on twitter. While twitter cancelled accounts of Chinese dissidents before the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests, Chinese government accounts that have whitewashed ongoing genocide against that China’s Uighur population continue to operate. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s genocidal government, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, and designated terrorist groups like Hezbollah and Hamas maintain social media accounts on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube.
Now, Congress is stepping into the issue with a common-sense solution that should win bipartisan support. Representatives Andy Barr (R.-Ky), Jim Banks (R.-Ind.), Joe Wilson (R.-SC) have introduced the “No Social Media Accounts for Terrorists or State Sponsors of Terrorism Act of 2021” which should garner bipartisan support. It brings American social media companies in line with other industries that legally may not provide services to sanctioned entities, although the current legislation does not apply to text messaging or email. While it would deny officials from sanctioned regimes to access to social media platforms, it would simultaneously provide protections for dissidents and civil society activists. Rather than have twitter censor human rights activists and promote genocide deniers in China, for example, the new bill would ensure the inverse. And while Facebook Executive Sheryl Sandberg blessed the censorship of Kurdish activists in Syria to appease Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, a man who transformed Turkey into the world’s largest jail for journalists, the new bill might compel Facebook to stand up for freedom rather than be party to repression.
While the genesis of the bill was with the Republican Study Committee, it not only plugs an existing loophole, but provides an opportunity for not only centrist but also progressive Democrats to work across the aisle. National security need not be a political football, and America is at its strongest when it acts with broad bipartisanship.
Filling the social media loophole is not the only cyber fix that Congress might tackle if cyber companies will not. Rep. Warren Davidson (R-Oh.), a former Army Ranger, highlights an additional problem: In a March 2, 2021 letter to Sundar Pichai, chief executive officer of Google, Davidson notes that Google plans to establish not only a data center but also an entire Google Cloud region in Saudi Arabia. He warns that the move that “will potentially allow KSA [Kingdom of Saudi Arabia] to have access to countless American’s sensitive personal information and business records.” He also notes that the State Department has found that Saudi authorities often harasses dissidents with large social media followings and does not respect privacy of communications.
In May 2018, Amazon Web Services issued a paper to address such concerns with regard to its overseas infrastructure, but much of its assurances rested upon trust in its vetting of security guards staffing centers. That paper seems to represent policy and encapsulate assumptions not just for Amazon, but also across the industry. Given the Biden administration’s provocative antagonism of Saudi Crown Prince (and de facto ruler) Muhammad Bin Salman, Prince Muhammad’s notorious volatility, and the potential that Saudi Arabia might pivot toward China or Russia should the mutual antagonism continue, the assurances of a Google to protect its facility against a security force intent on accessing it falls flat. As such, Davidson asks Google to clarify what material and personnel records from outside Saudi Arabia might be stored in its Saudi-based Cloud Region and what agreements and policy Google has made with Saudi authorities with regard to content and metadata access, decryption keys. It also asks whether, given Saudi actions against Khashoggi and other dissidents, what services Google might provide to Saudi intelligence.
Perhaps Google has addressed these issues and if so, they should respond directly to Davidson and perhaps clarify their policies in a Congressional hearing. One thing is certain, however. As U.S. big tech firms increasingly act as political actors with partisan and foreign policy agendas and as they prioritize short-term business interests over both liberty and U.S. national security, it behooves Congress to act in a bipartisan fashion to protect all American interests and compel social media and tech companies to do the right thing.