As committees in the House and Senate grill Facebook, Google and Twitter executives this week about Russia's use of social media to influence the 2016 election, the heavy hand of government regulation hangs over the hearings. Last month, Democratic senators Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerAdvocates call on top Democrats for 0B in housing investments Democrats draw red lines in spending fight Manchin puts foot down on key climate provision in spending bill MORE and Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharHarris, CBC put weight behind activist-led National Black Voter Day Seven takeaways from California's recall election Live coverage: California voters to decide Newsom's fate MORE held a press conference to introduce legislation that would regulate paid-for political speech on any website with a large audience. The bill is a transparent attempt to exploit fears about Russian interference as a cover for politicians' never-ending push to control the political speech Americans see and hear.
Russian interference in our elections is a legitimate concern of all Americans, but it has to be put in perspective. The Russia-linked Facebook ads that inspired the legislation and hearings amounted to less than $100,000 in paid advertising. Compare that to the $1.2 billion spent on the Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonClinton lawyer's indictment reveals 'bag of tricks' Attorney charged in Durham investigation pleads not guilty Attorney indicted on charge of lying to FBI as part of Durham investigation MORE campaign and the $600 million spent on Trump's campaign. For every 25,000 items the average Facebook user saw in their newsfeed, only one contained the Russian-inspired content in question.
Preventing even a tiny amount of Russian interference might still be enough to justify some new laws if not for the fact that those laws will sweep up an enormous amount of free speech by a large number of American citizens. Government bureaucrats will be deputized as the speech cops of the internet. Social media sites, fearing liability under the new laws, will be forced to be risk-averse and stomp on an even broader swath of political speech than the bureaucrats.
Those most affected will not be the Russians or even American political campaigns, both of whom have enough money to pay for the increased advertising costs that will result when social media companies pass on the costs of the necessary content screening and other regulatory requirements. It is ordinary Americans who want to participate in the political process who may be silenced by the additional costs and compliance burdens.
Up until now, the free-wheeling nature of social media and the internet in general has been a powerful engine of democracy, bringing Americans of all walks of life and locations together to discuss and debate issues in a way no town square ever could. On the paid front, ordinary Americans who would never be able to afford television advertising have been able to participate in internet advertising precisely because it's relatively inexpensive and quick. A Google ad is 95 characters and can be purchased in just minutes by anyone with a credit card. It makes no sense to export the regulatory thicket that governs political ads on TV to the new and democratizing technology of the internet.
The regulatory burden of the Warner-Klobuchar bill might be manageable if it only applied to true campaign advertising – that is, ads that advocate for or against a particular candidate. Instead, the bill casts a much wider net over all paid-for discussion of national political issues. A narrower bill wouldn't impact the Russians, who stand accused of sowing political dissension, not running campaign adds. But that is precisely why the proposed bill necessarily sweeps up enormous amounts of the political debate that powers American democracy and is thus likely unconstitutional.
At very least, attempts at regulating online political debate in response to $100,000 in Russian advertising should not be rushed. Instead of introducing legislation before the relevant hearings have even been held, politicians should wait until the Russian investigation being conducted by special prosecutor Robert Mueller and both houses of Congress has been completed and we have a clearer picture of what the Russians did and didn't do.
Even then, the best solution is self-regulation by social media companies. Already, Facebook has announced steps to increase the transparency of political ads and limit foreign influence on its site. Facebook is hiring thousands of new employees to review the ads placed on the platform, requiring greater documentation from purchasers of political ads, enforcing tighter restrictions on such ads using artificial intelligence, and working with the federal government to identify any new foreign threats. Twitter announced similar steps and Google's general counsel Kent Walker promised that the company is "committed to … working closely with governments, law enforcement, other companies, and leading NGOs to promote electoral integrity … and combat misinformation."
Self-regulation would avoid the serious First Amendment issues raised by government intervention. Just as importantly, it would allow each social media company to individually tailor a solution to the particular characteristics of its platforms, rather than forcing a one-size-fits-all federal mandate on the huge range of websites that populate the internet. Moreover, self-regulation can adapt with far greater speed and flexibility as the Russians adjust their tactics to try to get around whatever defenses we mount.
Congress should shift its focus from holding attention-grabbing press conferences to working with social media companies to address the problem of Russian interference. The alternative is a big government, speech suppressing solution that would make America more like Russia.
Curt Levey is president of the nonprofit Committee for Justice, a group that advocates for the rule of law. Before attending Harvard Law School he worked as a scientist in the field of artificial intelligence.