Republicans Can’t Decide If They Want Online Privacy or Not

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In early 2022, you may recall, truckers clogged the streets of Ottawa in protest of COVID-19 vaccine mandates. The Canadian government responded by (briefly) freezing the bank accounts of persons associated with this self-styled “Freedom Convoy.”

Cheryl Acton, a Republican member of the Utah House of Representatives, worried that this episode portends the rise of “digitally induced social control” and is a preview of life under a social credit system, akin to the one (fitfully) taking shape in China.

So Acton sponsored a bill, HB281, that bars her state from creating, using, or supporting any system that rates people based on things like their political affiliation or what they post on social media. Last March, Spencer Cox, Utah’s Republican governor, signed HB281 into law.

Gov. Cox, for his part, worries that social media is literally “killing our kids.” (The evidence does not bear out this claim, to say the least.) Ten days after approving the social credit ban, Gov. Cox signed into law two statutes aimed at reducing minors’ social media use. One of these statutes, SB152, requires social media platforms to verify the ages of their users.

Utah is not alone. Other Republican-dominated state governments, including Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas, have considered pairs of bills, one restricting the use of social credit systems, the requiring age verification on social media.

Simply put, these conservatives don’t know what they want.

Under a social credit system, citizens are scored on how well they conform to political and moral dogma. Higher scores lead to perks (e.g., access to better schools for one’s children), lower ones to punishments (e.g., an inability to travel).

Many on the right warn of the rise, in the United States, of an informal social credit system enforced mainly by private companies. No official scores, but say the wrong thing and you might lose your job, your Visa card, your Airbnb account.

Social media, these right-wing doomers contend, is at the center of this emerging regime. If you believe Kara Frederick, director of tech policy at the Heritage Foundation, social media platforms “monitor viewpoints to see whether they conform to leftist politicians’ version of reality.”

What is true is that the linchpin of a social credit system, whether formal or informal, is comprehensive surveillance. In China, this includes extensive biometric data collection, heavy use of facial-recognition software, and, above all, total supervision of online speech. Not surprisingly, the Chinese Communist Party does not allow citizens to speak online anonymously.

But in that case, why do conservatives want age verification rules for social media? As the Electronic Frontier Foundation observes, age verification is surveillance. A website can reliably verify a user’s age only by establishing her identity. Consequently, all users—yes, that means you—must upload a government-issued ID or (better yet!) submit to a biometric face-scan.

Once a social media company gathers such information, no one can be sure that it’s secure. Data breaches happen all the time. Data is misused all the time. And if you think, as Frederick does, that Big Tech wants to nudge us toward “tech-enabled totalitarianism,” you have all the more reason to be distrustful. By their own account, those who “dissent from the prevailing leftist orthodoxy” (to quote Frederick again) are the most vulnerable to targeted data leaks.

Online anonymity is a tool for the persecuted and the unpopular. It enables dissent. That is why authoritarian states such as China oppose it. If they survive legal challenges under the First Amendment (to be sure, they probably won’t), laws like Utah’s SB152 would put an end to online anonymity in the United States. Right-wingers posting under pseudonyms—using secrecy to subvert leftist orthodoxy, to speak truth to power, by their lights, shielded from retribution—could be unmasked at any moment.

So what’ll it be? Do conservatives want to age-gate the internet, in service of their moral panic over kids and social media? Or do they want to protect online anonymity because they’re paranoid about digitally induced social control? They can’t have it both ways.

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