At Thursday night’s debate in South Carolina, Newt Gingrich painted himself as a friend of a free and open Internet, but in the past he’s talked up pretty radical proposals to curtail free speech online.
The question Thursday was about the Stop Online Piracy Act, legislation that has the support of the entertainment industry and powerful members of the House and Senate, but is now on life support after running into a firestorm of criticism from Internet users, tech companies like Google, and activists who shut down websites in protest earlier this week.
“You have virtually everybody who’s technologically advanced, including, you know,Google and YouTube and Facebook and all the folks, who say this is going to totally mess up the Internet, and the bill in its current form is written really badly and leads to a range of censorship that is totally unacceptable. Well, I favor freedom,” Gingrich said. “The idea that we’re going to preemptively have the government start censoring the Internet on behalf of giant corporations’ economic interests strikes me as exactly the wrong thing to do.”
But back in 2006, Gingrich argued censoring the Internet would be the right thing to do when it comes to Islamic radicals who use the web to organize jihad against the U.S.
“We need to get ahead of the curve rather than wait until we actually literally lose a city, which I think could literally happen in the next decade if we’re unfortunate,” Mr. Gingrich said during a speech in New Hampshire, according to a story I wrote at the time for The New York Sun. “We now should be impaneling people to look seriously at a level of supervision that we would never dream of if it weren’t for the scale of the threat.”
Gingrich’s aides posted the audio on the web at the time, but the file seems to be gone now. My recollection is that the former House speaker didn’t go into great detail, but suggested that a group of retired judges or other respected individuals should be empowered to shut down websites that foment anti-American violence. He did not explain how the U.S. would take down sites on servers beyond the reach of U.S. law.
At the time, Gingrich conceded that the kinds of controls he was proposing for the web would trigger “a serious debate about the First Amendment,” but he said the intrusion was needed because of the apocalyptic nature of the threat posed by Islamic terrorists.
“This is a serious, long-term war,” Gingrich said. “Either before we lose a city or, if we are truly stupid, after we lose a city, we will adopt rules of engagement that use every technology we can find to break up their capacity to use the Internet, to break up their capacity to use free speech, and to go after people who want to kill us to stop them from recruiting people.”
Obviously, terrorists pose a more significant threat than intellectual property pirates. So, Gingrich could distinguish his positions on those grounds. But both proposals raise serious questions about their practical effectiveness and the degree to which they’d block speech that’s lawful right now.
In any event, Gingrich’s 2006 statements show that he’s not entirely averse to “preemptivelyhav[ing] the government start censoring the Internet” for some reasons and that he’s far from being a champion of unfettered free speech on the Web.