Attacking Free Speech Doesn’t Just Hurt Tech: America Must Stay True to Its First Amendment Principles

The First Amendment is one of the cornerstone principles that define this nation. There is no such thing as freedom if we cannot speak freely.   

Today, however, our nation seems less interested in protecting free speech than at any time I can recall. Major advocates of free speech like the ACLU are wavering in their support of our First Amendment, and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are fighting for the government to censor online speech.  

We may not always agree with what others are saying, but that disagreement should never be used to limit people’s ability to speak freely. Growing up as a Jewish boy in New York, I never doubted that the Nazis were terrible people. And yet, when Nazi sympathizers wanted to parade in Skokie, Illinois, in the late 1970s, I learned that the unique thing about America was that it was our culture to defend freedom of speech. No matter how much we disagreed with what was being said, we knew these people had a right to say it.  

Thankfully, the judiciary has helped to define limited exceptions to this basic rule where life or liberty is at stake. But every such exception is just that – an exception. As a nation, we have always returned to the fundamental principle that we will flourish most when everyone is most free to speak.  

In this and many areas, the U.S. has led the world. We are one of the few countries where the right to speak freely is basic and fundamental. And not only does the right to freedom of speech guarantee people can say what they think, it also guarantees they have fair access to hear and receive what others say.   

But right now, our country is embroiled in a civil war around this fundamental freedom. Both sides choose their own facts and decide how they want to perceive our nation. Political tribal leaders, eager to score quick victories, seem eager to abuse the First Amendment and treat its free-speech protections as barriers to their parochial political goals, rather than as a common cultural template we share and as a key to American success.   

Any deviation from the freedoms that unite us could have dire consequences. You only need to look at China to see this.  In China, the ruling communist party suppresses any views that don’t represent the “party line.” Journalists cannot criticize the government for fear of their safety, and there is little respect for the privacy of the average citizen.   

China is laser-focused on brand-new technologies that define fast-growing fields like AI and machine learning. But the Chinese government is leveraging social media and technology to wage a war against personal privacy and the freedom of expression. Nearly every Chinese citizen is socially ranked according to his or her social media comments and credit history. Even something as mundane as jaywalking is often captured by Chinese surveillance cameras and used to rank citizens.  These rankings, in turn, determine a person’s ability to travel and even their placement on dating websites.   

Our values embedded in our First Amendment are what distinguish us from China. In the fight over free speech in modern America, we cannot lose sight of the fact that our primary global competitor does so poorly on free speech. In fact, freedom of speech may be one of our strongest competitive edges against China.   

Yet we, too, are deviating from the path set out for us by our Founding Fathers. Political parties are pushing proposals forward that are in direct conflict with the letter and spirit of the First Amendment.   

These attacks on free speech are becoming more and more common in the era of social media. Social media should be a technological innovation that enhances free speech. Instead, it is being used as a political cudgel to undermine our First Amendment.  

Just recently, Florida’s Republican governor signed a law that allows the government to dictate which content and users social media platforms can censor. A Democratic senator attempted to leverage her position in Congress to punish a company for what were, in her opinion, “snotty tweets.” Both parties are growing fond of skirting the line when it comes to free expression. They bully Internet platforms into promoting speech they like and yet insist that these platforms remove speech favored by their opponents.   

What’s more, we have been seeing new and dangerous antitrust theories that protect a few competitors instead of protecting competition itself. Proponents of these new antitrust theories are using inflammatory examples of poor content moderation by leading social media platforms like Facebook to argue that social media companies need to be broken up and have their platforms controlled.   

We need to remember that these Internet platforms cannot be responsible for every comment or piece of content shared on them.  Given the sheer quantity of content available on these platforms, imposing liabilities onto the platform providers or holding them to ad hoc antitrust standards would severely reduce the value of these services and lead to an onslaught of opportunistic trial lawyer lawsuits.   

At the same time, we have also seen our own government pressure these platforms to censor speech during the pandemic. While health officials changed their tune about mask usage and scientific facts about the virus and vaccines were being shut down, countless dissenting voices were choked off, affecting the actions and thinking of millions of people.   

There’s no getting around it: We are witnessing the abuse of social media to undermine freedom of speech, and alarm bells should be ringing. We are supposed to be different from China. We have different values and a different history. Our First Amendment is supposed to shield our innovators, speakers, and content creators from unnecessary government control. We need free speech online to remain true to who we are as a nation.  

It doesn’t have to be this way. In the 21st century, technology like social media has become the primary medium for exercising our First Amendment rights. People should be empowered by the opportunity to inspire and influence communities all around the world. In a matter of seconds, new ideas and information can reach countless people through platforms like YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and many more.   

The tech industry is providing us with unprecedented opportunities to both receive information and express opinion. Where in the past, to reach a significant audience, you had to secure time on an official TV show or radio station, now most people can reach millions of people with just their phone or their laptop.  

I recognize that the potential for significant influence entails a responsibility to wield that influence wisely. But that doesn’t mean we should thrust these platforms between a rock and a hard place. Today, they are facing the impossible task of determining truthfulness and offensiveness in dozens of countries and in hundreds of languages, all while navigating competing and contradictory demands from politicians on both sides of the aisle.   

This doesn’t just go against the freedom of the press and the freedom of speech; it also restricts the freedom to associate with like-minded people, the right to petition our government and the liberty to practice our freedom of religion. On top of all this, politicians are trying to create an atmosphere in which tech innovators have to either take their cues from Washington or face legal challenges. Such an atmosphere stifles innovation and stagnates the creativity that drives the tech industry.  

I understand, of course, that the First Amendment only applies to direct government censorship of speech. But content creators understand the First Amendment is not just our law – it is our culture. If legislators threaten retaliatory action against Big Tech platforms, or if they remove long-standing protections for user-generated comments and content and act to shrink, curtail, and limit the size of tech companies providing platforms for free speech, are we not eroding what it means to be a country where everyone is free? Aren’t we giving up on what has made us unique for centuries?  It is a short step from moderating tech platforms to requiring movie companies to depict China critically – something content creators have not done given the revenue from the China market. 

Ironically, congressional attacks on our tech innovators and other successful businesses only help the Chinese agenda to surpass the United States. President Xi must be gleeful when he hears about American leaders pushing to undermine our own First Amendment or talk of breaking up our crown jewel tech companies.   

What people need to realize is that innovation and freedom of speech go hand in hand. Creative disruption through innovation allows consumers to benefit from better, less expensive, more robust services. It is the reason the U.S. continues to be the world’s economic leader. And not only would innovation be impossible without robust free-speech protections, it would also be pointless if innovators couldn’t count on a world where everyone is free to use, engage, and share as they see fit.   

The way forward should provide clear and reasonable protocols that give American companies legal certainty so they can innovate freely, while also allowing them to accept and respect reasonable guidelines for how best to moderate online speech. This means having a process in place to correct content once platforms learn of legitimate and clear violations.  

And we should, of course, encourage U.S. Internet platforms to be more transparent about their content moderation decisions and give people more control over what they see on their feeds.   

But for the sake of the First Amendment, we must avoid imposing new liabilities on social media platforms or subjecting them to dangerous and unprecedented antitrust standards.   

The bottom line is that technology is a tool. It is neither good nor bad. Think of how humans took advantage of fire, created a hammer, invented the wheel, harnessed electricity, and split the atom. These innovations and others created problems, but once our ancestors grappled with them and created appropriate legal frameworks, they vastly improved and lengthened our lives or provided other tangible benefits.  

Our nation has been blessed with good fortune.  We are a land of plenty and a nation of creators and innovators. That is who we are as Americans. We must unite around our values, including the First Amendment. We must ensure our identity as one free nation – centered on liberty and First Amendment principles – will allow us to create and innovate for the future and also respect the diversity of viewpoints of all people.  

Gary Shapiro is president and CEO of the Consumer Technology Association (CTA), the U.S. trade association representing more than 1,500 consumer technology companies, and a New York Times best-selling author. He is the author of the book Ninja Future: Secrets to Success in the New World of Innovation. This article is based on an address Mr. Shapiro delivered recently to The Media Institute. His views are his own.