Hate Bloggers Target Free-Speech Statute

     (CN) — Allegations of government-sanctioned internet censorship are at the heart of a new federal complaint by anti-Muslim groups, but civil libertarians hail the statute under attack as the foundation of online free expression.
     The self-styled American Freedom Defense Initiative is the organization leading the charge.
     Mostly known for trying to plaster buses with posters that depict all Muslims as terrorists, the group brought its latest effort against U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, blaming her for the censorship of its posts on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
     Filed July 13 in Washington, the group’s complaint takes aim at Section 320, of the Communications Decency Act, a federal law generally understood as letting websites — from major media platforms to personal blogs — maintain and enforce their own terms of service without fear of litigation.
     Under the “Good Samaritan” provision, the law reads: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”
     This shields social-media platforms and bloggers alike from any liability for user-generated content.
     Pamela Geller’s AFDI views the statute more darkly, however, saying it allows Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to “engage in government-sanctioned discrimination and the suppression of free speech.”
     The 25-page complaint includes screenshots of Facebook posts that Geller says were taken down as “hate speech” and violations of “community standards.”
     One removed image shows a protester holding a sign “Death to All Juice” next to the phrase “Islamic Jew-Hatred: It’s in the Qur’an.”
     The lawsuit also alleges a conspiracy theory in connection to Saudi Prince Alaweed bin Talal’s purchase of $300 million in Twitter stock. Geller says bin Talal’s 5 percent stake in the company has allowed him to strictly enforce “sharia blasphemy strictures” over the social media giant.
     Rather than naming Facebook, Twitter or YouTube as defendants, Geller wants a court order stopping Attorney General Lynch from enforcing the statute.
     AFDI’s lawyer Robert Muise acknowledged in an email that Section 230 has useful protections.
     “When regulating in the area of free speech, Congress must do so with precision,” the Ann Arbor, Michigan-based attorney said. “Section 230 fails that mandate, thus threatening free speech as a result. Because a statute regulating speech might have some useful purposes doesn’t mean that it can’t be applied in a way that threatens free speech, such as in the way it permits social media giants Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to engage in their discriminatory business practices and censorship.”
     But attorney Emma Llanso, the free-expression director at the Washington-based Center for Democracy and Technology, said in a phone interview that Section 230 is “as important as the First Amendment to defending free speech online.”
     “I am not aware of previous cases making this argument that 230 violates the First Amendment,” Llanso said.
     The reason for that, she said, is that allowing platforms to assume liability for how they curate their websites would “perversely disincentivize” them from providing open forums to their users.
     The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based digital-rights group, has likewise called the law the “most important statute in protecting online speech.”
     “Rather than face potential liability for their users’ actions, most would likely not host any user content at all or would need to protect themselves by being actively engaged in censoring what we say, what we see, and what we do online,” its website states. “In short, CDA 230 is perhaps the most influential law to protect the kind of innovation that has allowed the Internet to thrive since 1996.”
     Llanso, the free-expression expert, notes that the same protections cover the “smallest website operators,” including Geller’s Atlas Shrugs and Spencer’s Jihad Watch, which both host comments sections.
     “There are so many different ways that people use the ability to moderate websites,” Llanso said. “So all of that is to say that one of the key flaws in this case is this questionable conflating of the internet with the preferences of three websites.”
     AFDI president Geller and vice president Robert Spencer are co-plaintiffs to the group’s complaint, as is Spencer’s website Jihad Watch.
     Most of the group’s past legal entanglements have taken on transportation authorities across the country that have refused to run its offensive ads.
     One such ad depicted Palestinians as “savages,” and another showed the image of a kaffiyeh-draped militant next to the words: “Killing Jews is worship that draws us closer to Allah,” a quotation attributed to Hamas MTV.
     Such campaigns have led the Southern Poverty Law Center to call AFDI’s leader Geller the “anti-Muslim movement’s most visible and flamboyant figurehead.”
     The group won the right to run ads in New York, Philadelphia and Michigan, but lost other fights in Boston and Seattle.

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