Yesterday while giving a speech in South Carolina, Republican front-runner Donald Trump announced his “plan” to combat ISIS online. It basically consists of Bill Gates and other tech-industry bigwigs “closing” the Internet “in some ways.” Trump went on to dismiss any First Amendment concerns as “foolish.”
We’re losing a lot of people because of the Internet. We have to see Bill Gates and a lot of different people that really understand what’s happening. We have to talk to them about, maybe in certain areas, closing that internet up in some ways. Somebody will say, ‘Oh freedom of speech, freedom of speech.’ These are foolish people.
It didn’t take long for critics to tear into the plan. As the Verge’s Nick Statt put it, “It’s unclear if Trump was suggesting the US government censor certain parts of the web or if he lacks a basic understanding of how the internet works.”
Statt went on to say, “Stupid is as Trump does.” Unfortunately, Hillary Clinton put forth an almost identical plan on Saturday while speaking at the Brookings Institute in Washington, D.C.
Self-radicalization that leads to attacks, like what we think happened in San Bernardino, we’re going to have to ask our technology companies… to help us on this… to deny them online space. And this is complicated, you’re gonna hear all of the usual complaints, you know, freedom of speech, etc.”
Granted, if you listen to both speeches, Clinton comes across as more coherent, which isn’t surprising given Trump’s penchant for demagoguery. But neither candidate offers anything concrete besides the fact that the tech industry needs to somehow save the day. And both candidates are quick to dismiss those who would bring up freedom of speech.
While the dismissive tone both candidates have taken in regard to the First Amendment is alarming, it’s particularly galling to hear it come from Clinton. While you can accuse Trump of many things, you cannot accuse him of directly influencing U.S. foreign policy. And what is more responsible for the rise of ISIS: the interventionist policies championed by Hillary Clinton in Iraq and Libya over the past 15 years, or data encryption and rogue Twitter accounts?
The tech industry’s alleged history of collusion with the government should be enough to raise concerns about Clinton and Trump’s remarks. And messages currently emanating from Silicon Valley should do little to alleviate those concerns. Google’s Eric Schmidt, who may someday be called upon by Clinton or Trump (or another candidate) to find a solution to the online ISIS problem, recently proposed combating the group with “spell-checkers, but for hate and harassment.” Does asking what in the hell that even means make someone foolish? Should concerns about this proposal or how it would work be explained away with a dismissive “etc.”?
That’s not to say that finding ways to disrupt ISIS online and protecting the First Amendment are necessarily incompatible. But when vague notions about tech companies “denying online space” and “closing” the Internet are being tossed around by the front-runners in a presidential election, and tech giants are talking about “spell-checkers, but for hate and harassment,” that’s the exact moment when protecting freedom of speech needs to be discussed.