Biden Appeals Ban on Government Facebook Takedown Requests

The Biden administration is appealing a bombshell ruling from a federal judge barring government agencies from contacting social media companies to make takedown requests or recommend other content moderation. State Department officials had already halted routine meetings with Facebook in response to the July 5th ruling. Experts fear the lack of communication between the federal government and social media companies could delay responses to online disinformation campaigns ahead of upcoming elections.

A State Department spokesperson confirmed with Gizmodo that its Global Engagement Center postponed a meeting with Meta on July 5 while it reviewed the preliminary injunction. The spokesperson said that the meeting was intended to focus on information sharing with the goal of countering foreign disinformation overseas.

State Department officials, according to a Facebook employee speaking with The Washington Post, told the company all future monthly meetings to discuss content takedowns were “canceled pending further guidance.” The reported cancellation means government officials and trust and safety representatives at Facebook will no longer meet to discuss brewing political misinformation or foreign influence operations. It’s unclear whether other agencies have taken similar measures following the ruling or if Google or Twitter have canceled meetings. The State Department, Meta, and Google did not immediately respond to Gizmodo’s request for comment. Twitter sent us a poop emoji.

“There will likely be a chilling effect from overly cautious government counsels,” a former Department of Homeland Security Official told the Post. “What previously had been inbounds will look too close to the line, or we’re not sure how it’s going to work.”

Judge compares Biden’s admin’s meeting with tech companies to Orwellian ‘Ministry of Truth’

The Justice Department appealed Trump-appointed federal Judge Terry A. Doughty’s preliminary injunction hours after it landed, according to court documents filed Wednesday evening. Doughty’s preliminary injunction bars numerous government agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, and Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) from contacting or asking social media companies about posts he said are protected by the First Amendment. The ruling does offer some exceptions for government communications with tech firms intended to warn them of national security threats, criminal activity, and voter suppression. Government officials maintain their content recommendations to social networks were merely suggestions, not legal demands. Doughty said numerous uncovered communications show Biden administration officials wielded threats of increased regulations or a stripping of Section 230 immunity protections to get its way.

In his at-times rhapsodic 155-page ruling, Doughty sided with attorneys general from Louisiana and Missouri and who sued Biden, Anthony Fauci, and other top government officials. The AGs alleged the government violated users’ First Amendment rights when asking social networking companies to take down misinformation about vaccines, the Covid-19 lab leak theory, Hunter Biden’s laptop, and other hot-button issues. Doughty said the government’s actions suppressed conservative speech and “arguably involves the most massive attack against free speech in United States’ history.”

“This targeted suppression of conservative ideas is a perfect example of viewpoint discrimination of political speech,” Doughty said. “American citizens have the right to engage in free debate about the significant issues affecting the country.”

Digital speech experts speaking with Gizmodo expressed uncertainty over whether the administration’s actions crossed the line between legitimate advocacy for certain policy outcomes and into First Amendment violations.

“It surely can’t be a violation of the First Amendment for the government to call out a newspaper for publishing a story the government believes to be false,” Knight First Amendment Institute Executive Director Jameel Jaffer said. “On the other hand, we don’t want the government to be able to escape the First Amendment’s prohibition against censorship simply by relying on informal coercion rather than formal regulation.”

Platform safety experts like former Twitter trust and safety head Yoel Roth similarly spoke out against the judges ruling which he said threatened to make platforms less safe. Roth, who was himself the victim of an online harassment campaign, disagreed with the judge’s view that platforms were “coerced” by officials. Roth wrote on Bluesky, “That’s just…not how any of this works.”

Others like disinformation specialist Nina Jankowicz expressed concerns the judge’s ruling could lead to an upsurge in misinformation ahead of the 2024 presidential election.

“This is a weaponisation of the court system,” Jankowicz said in an interview with The Guardian. “It is an intentional and purposeful move to disrupt the work that needs to be done ahead of the 2024 election, and it’s really chilling,” she said.

Update: 6:16 PM EST: Added details from State Department.

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