GOVERNMENTS AROUND the world last Wednesday signed the Christchurch Call stating their belief in the need for action and cooperation in confronting online extremism. The United States was not one of them, but the same day the White House put out a belief statement of its own: “SOCIAL MEDIA PLATFORMS should advance FREEDOM OF SPEECH.”
This sentiment, minus the caps lock, might be valuable if it were a contribution to the discussion New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has started. It is not. Instead, it is the introduction to a website soliciting complaints from citizens about technology companies taking down their posts — the latest salvo in this administration’s evidence-free assault on social media sites for supposedly censoring conservative voices.
There is a lot wrong with the White House’s “Tech Bias Story Sharing Tool,” which requests the names, profile links, Zip codes, email addresses and even citizenship status of respondents. The information could be leveraged in a skewed case against companies to scare them out of enforcing their terms of service. Or it could be repurposed for some other White House whim. The form links to a disclaimer that respondents grant the U.S. government a license that is “irrevocable and valid in perpetuity, throughout the world, and in all forms of media.” The administration does not appear to have performed the privacy review that agencies must undertake before collecting personal details.
But the coincidence of the Christchurch Call with the antitech crusade is also a bitter reminder of how the Trump administration has abdicated leadership on the crucial questions of the digital age. The final framework 18 countries announced in Paris last Wednesday is full of praiseworthy promises, such as attempting to address the root causes of radicalization and working with smaller online service providers to raise awareness about terrorist content and build policing capacity. Yet so far, overly restrictive regulations show that many governments are hearing a call not for careful efforts to keep citizens safe but for rash and irresponsible crackdowns.
This complicated reality gave the United States an opportunity. The Trump administration could have signed the call, which asks countries to agree only to “consider appropriate action,” as an endorsement of its overall values — while vowing not to impose regulation that would infringe on constitutional protections for speech, and pushed allies to follow that lead. Or officials could have chosen not to sign the call and made that same case for free speech with real credibility. Instead, the administration sacrificed credibility entirely by continuing to try to bully platforms into privileging the president’s personal politics.
The world is writing the Internet’s future, but the United States is busy focusing on Mr. Trump’s Twitter feed.