Liberals Want to Use Russian Ads as an Excuse for Broad Internet Speech Regulation

David Keating, President of the Institute for Free Speech, and RNLA member Paul Jossey wrote in The Hill about how liberals and Democrats are using Facebook advertisements purchased by Russian agents as an excuse to regulate the online political speech of Americans.  First, they pointed out the narrow scope of the Russian ad problem:

As a practical matter, the Russian ads appear to have as much substance as spitting in the ocean. Estimates indicate the ads cost $150,000, and over half was spent after the election. By comparison, the money spent in the 2016 election in support of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton was over 16,000 times more than the money Russians spent on ads. At most, only four percent of the nation’s voting age population saw one of the Facebook ads at issue. . . . [M]any of the ads occurred in 2015. Importantly, few even mentioned federal candidates. . . . 

Yet, despite their narrow audience and scope and no evidence of the ads having any impact on Americans' voting decisions, liberals are rushing to use them as an excuse to regulate speech:

Various interests have seized on Russian chicanery to push “reforms” lacking priority in less neurotic times. Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Mark Warner (D-Va.) sent a “Dear Colleague” letter seeking new rules for online ads. The resulting bill would burden internet speech with suffocating rules, even possibly banning some forms of online speech. Instead of hitting the Russians, the bill instead targets American speech, press and assembly rights guaranteed by the First Amendment. In short, despite the dearth of candidate references in the Russian ads, there is already a rush to chill the world’s most dynamic speech forum. 

After pointing out the sheer impracticality of any rule against foreign "influence" in our world with instant global communications, Mr. Keating and Mr. Jossey describe the real danger here -- government pressure to suppress certain speech:

The Washington Post reported that President Obama confabbed with Zuckerberg to ensure people on Facebook saw only legitimate news sources. The head of the federal government asking a media company to censor unwanted speech is frightening. Facebook says, “We share the values of free speech, that when the right to speech is censored or restricted for any of us, it diminishes the rights to speech for all of us.” 

But when government officials pressure it and other online outlets to police political speech, censorship risks skyrocket. The government should focus on ensuring that our voting machinery is safe from foreign hackers. Protection is also needed to prevent foreign agents from stealing internal candidate campaign communications. But when the issue is speech, we must exercise great caution lest zeal to curb foreign influence instead damages our own free speech rights. 

Lawmakers should exercise caution when considering any rule that limits speech or creates new regulations of speech, and any response to the limited (and quite frankly, incompetent) attempts by Russian agents to influence public opinion last year should be very narrow, targeted specifically to foreign speech, and specifically exempt speech by American citizens.  Any other internet speech regulation would be unconstitutional, in addition to being a bad idea.  Fortunately, Republicans in Congress and at the FEC understand this well.  As Mr. Keating and Mr. Jossey quite correctly point out, American citizens are the ones whose rights are taken away when speech is regulated.