A Plea to Act in Good Faith: How Two State Laws Challenge Social Media Platforms’ Editorial Practices

Tori Tinsley

Recent controversy surrounding the constitutionality of two state laws regulating social media platforms reveals that modern technology is presenting unprecedented challenges for the legal system. Two laws passed in Texas and Florida in 2021, HB 20 and SB 7072 have raised questions about whether states can make laws that regulate social media platforms’ free speech policies. Tech advocacy groups Net Choice and Computer & Communications Industry Association filed a joint lawsuit against Texas and Florida, arguing that the states’ bills unconstitutionally violated first amendment protections for online platforms. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit vindicated Texas’ law, which prohibits social media platforms from engaging in viewpoint based censorship1 and requires platforms to be transparent in their policies. Contrarily, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit struck down Florida’s law, which restricts platforms from unfairly censoring users and deplatforming political candidates. 

Despite the similarities in Texas’ HB 20 and Florida’s SB 7072, the courts have handed down two very different rulings. Because of this, both bills have now been brought to the attention of the Supreme Court–a move which The Washington Post claims will bring “the most controversial debates of the internet age to the country’s highest court.”1 While the Supreme Court has vacated the Texas case, there is no update as to whether the Court will hear the Florida one. 

But, a question currently pervading the legal sphere is: how do two courts rule differently on two nearly identical state bills? A look at the Fifth Circuit and Eleventh Circuit rulings reveal that differing legal interpretations of intermediate scrutiny and editorial discretion led to different outcomes for Texas and Florida’s legislation. As such, the rulings raise the following questions: to what extent do social media platforms have immunity in editorial discretion? And, do Texas and Florida have a legitimate state interest for regulating the free speech practices of social media platforms? 

Let us first address the question of editorial discretion. Section 230 of the United States Communications Decency Act is referenced in both the Fifth and Eleventh Circuit court cases. It grants online services immunity in how they choose to moderate their content. It reads: 

(1) 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. (2) No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be held liable on account of— (A) any action voluntarily taken in good faith to restrict access to or availability of material that the provider or user considers to be obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable, whether or not such material is constitutionally protected; or (B) any action taken to enable or make available to information content providers or others the technical means to restrict access to material described in paragraph (1).

It is evident in both rulings that Section 230 of the United States Communications Decency Act has strong implications when determining the extent to which social media companies can exercise editorial discretion. In the Eleventh Circuit court opinion, the judges argued against Florida, claiming that a social media company’s “‘content-moderation’ decisions constitute protected exercises of editorial judgment.” In the court’s perspective, Florida’s law would restrict a platforms’ “content moderation” rights. Implied in the court’s argument is the expectation that social media platforms properly and fairly moderate content on their platforms. The court wrote:

The platform will have exercised editorial judgment in two key ways: First, the platform will have removed posts that violate its terms of service or community standards—for instance, those containing hate speech, pornography, or violent content…Second, it will have arranged available content by choosing how to prioritize and display posts—effectively selecting which users’ speech the viewer will see, and in what order, during any given visit to the site.

Florida and Texas find a problem with these two so-called exercises of editorial judgment: social media companies have unclear community standards and inconsistently “prioritize and display posts.” Recognizing this, the Fifth Circuit came to a conclusion contrary to the Eleventh Circuit: that corporations do not “have a freewheeling First Amendment right to censor what people say.”  

The good faith stipulation in Section 230 2(A) would be beneficial in clarifying the confusion surrounding editorial discretion. While the Fifth Circuit briefly referenced the “good faith” stipulation in Section 230, the Eleventh Circuit did not. According to the Congressional Research Service (CRS), Section 230 (1) offers online platforms immunity when providing content, but Section 230 (2) offers online platforms immunity when regulating content only when their regulation practices are conducted in good faith. Thus, the good faith stipulation is a limitation placed on social media platforms to ensure platforms engaged in fair and reasonable practices. Section 230 2(A) states that “no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be held liable on account of—(A) any action voluntarily taken in good faith to restrict access to or availability of material that the provider or user considers to be obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable.” If an action by a social media provider is not “taken in good faith,” then ought not the provider be held liable? 

A “good faith” test ought to be applied when determining whether a platform is properly exercising its editorial discretion. The fact that both Texas’ HB 20 and Florida’s SB 7072 articulate that social media companies are not currently engaging in good faith practices should call into question platforms’ editorial practices. SB 7072 states that “social media platforms that unfairly censor, shadow ban, deplatform, or apply post-prioritization algorithms to Florida candidates, Florida users, or Florida residents are not acting in good faith.” And, Texas’ HB 20 mentions that platforms should actively “make a good faith effort to evaluate the legality of the content or activity.” So, if platforms are engaging in bad faith practices by favoring some views over others and applying their policies unfairly, then this calls back into question a key consideration in the appellate court rulings: do states then have a legitimate interest in ensuring platforms act in good faith?

Florida and Texas argued that they had legitimate state interests in regulating social media platforms’ free speech policies, yet only Texas’ law was upheld by the Courts. Texas argued that it had a “fundamental interest in protecting the free exchange of ideas and information,” which the Fifth Circuit affirmed. Florida’s argument that it had “a substantial interest in protecting its residents from inconsistent and unfair actions by social media platforms,” however, was not a substantial reason for the Eleventh Circuit. The Eleventh Circuit upheld the decision of the district court, arguing that “there’s no legitimate—let alone substantial—governmental interest in leveling the expressive playing field.” Florida’s law, which aimed to ensure that social media companies treat conservatives and liberals fairly on their platforms, was considered unconstitutional.

In part, the district and appellate court rejected Florida’s claims to a substantial state interest since the bill was advertised by the state’s governor as an attack on big tech bias. As such, both courts came to the conclusion that the bill was nothing more than a scheme to advance conservative ideology. The Eleventh Circuit court claimed that the district court found “the entire bill was motivated by the state’s viewpoint-based purpose to defend conservatives’ speech from perceived liberal ‘big tech’ bias.” Both courts focused on the potential agenda behind the bill that they seemed to miss the relevance of the bill. 

Florida’s law held social media companies accountable for their unfair practices. So did Texas’ law. As the Fifth Circuit recognized, Texas’ law could “make censors think twice before removing speech from Platforms in a viewpoint-discriminatory manner.” Both HB20 and SB 7072 were aimed at preventing censorship, ensuring fairness, and maintaining transparency on social media platforms. When social media companies cannot ensure good faith practices and apply their own policies without discrimination, states should have a legitimate interest to intervene and ensure private companies treat their citizens’ viewpoints with equal dignity and respect. 

These two state laws have several implications for future congressional action, as the CRS notes. But there are also considerations for the Supreme Court. If the Florida case makes its way to the Supreme Court, justices will have to clarify what constitutes editorial judgment, what the apparent implications of Section 230 are, the relevance of the “good faith” clause, and whether states have a substantial interest in regulating the private sphere of online communications. As Supreme Court justices have noted in review of Texas’ HB 20, these issues concerning state regulations and digital speech rights are unprecedented “issues of great importance.”  

Man v. Machine: Social and Legal Implications of Machine Translation

Cecilia Quirk

Introduction

In a predominantly English-speaking country such as the United States, it can be easy to take for granted the essential relationship between the arts of law and translation. Yet, as David Bellos notes in Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything, legal texts are translated in much greater quantities than typical literature, and interestingly, in more complex and various directions. Not only is the translation of law from one language to another “a prerequisite for the construction and maintenance of a global society,” as Bellos puts it, legal writing is already an act of translation in and of itself. Law in English, for instance, isn’t really English at all anymore; legal language often takes on different connotations from common parlance and is frequently an amalgamation of clearly non-English terms. The self-referential and essentially enclosed language of the law is what leads Bellos to conclude that it is inherently untranslatable, though by necessity the object of much translation. 

As the future of legal translation undoubtedly lies–at least in part–in machine translation (MT), there is potential for valuable increased efficiency as much as costly detours: instances of “getting lost in translation.” In order to understand what increased adoption of MT means for the legal world, particularly in the United States, it is important to look back on the history of US Legal Translation, to look across the Atlantic to the complex yet streamlined translation infrastructure practiced by the European Union, and look to the future as cases regarding MT use at our southern border are beginning to cause courts to consider the implications of MT on consent.  

US Legal Translation 

Louisiana

Even before the enhanced globalization of the 20th and 21st centuries, the United States, perhaps surprisingly, already had a rich history of legal translation, particularly in Louisiana. In fact, Louisiana’s first constitution was written in French before it was translated to English, although it held that both versions had equal authority. This system of enacting English and French laws of equal authority remained in place for 35 years until the state’s second constitution, in 1845, held only English law to be official in the future as Lousianna became a state. For this reason, the Civil Code of 1870 appeared in only English, though the issue of conflicting translations remained. Conflicts in translation can arise for numerous reasons: from outright mistakes, ambiguities arising from the structure of a language, or from the fact that  there often is no such thing as a perfect match from one word to another between languages (Bermann 91-93). For instance, Shelp v. National Surety Corporation, a case regarding whether a lessor was obligated to repair doors on his leased property, dealt with a discrepancy between the Article 2716 of the Civil Code of 1870, which appeared only in English, and its parallel in the French-language provision of the 1825 code: 

“The repairs which must be made at the expense of the tenant are those which, during the 

lease, it becomes necessary to make … [notably] to windows, shutters, partitions, shop 

windows, locks and hinges, and everything of that kind, according to the custom of the 

Place.”

The 1825 French version, however, had included portes (“portes, croisees, planches de cloison et de fermeture de boutique, gonds, tarjettes, serrures et autres, suivant l’usage des lieux”), which did not make its way into the English version. While doors could have been reasonably construed as belonging to the category of things mentioned in the English version, the court came down on the side of the lessee on account of the greater authority of the French original text. According to the court, while English-language law was to be generally dispositive, the French version of the 1825 code was authoritative because the Civil Codes of 1808 and 1825 were enacted in French before being translated into English. The decision to honor the French original was especially validated since, as the state Supreme Court found, “the English translation of the French text of the Civil Code of 1825 and, for that matter, the Code of Practice of 1825, was spectacularly bad.” The Court also quoted from Edward Dubuisson in the decision

“Even where the translations do not contain misleading errors, the vigor, the spirit, the 

clarity and finish of the originals are lost in the translation.”

If a team of human translators, even while producing an error-free translation, miss “the vigor, the spirit, the clarity and finish of the originals” how can we expect MT to capture these expressly humanistic qualities of legal writing?

Consent

Moving beyond the not inconsequential aesthetics of “vigor” and “finish,” research has found that MT use in high risk settings such as court and legal proceedings, despite its intention to enhance accessibility, can exacerbate existing inequalities. For instance, two recently reported cases revolved around US transport police officers using Google Translate to gain the consent of Spanish-speaking individuals to search their vehicles. Both cases resulted in the officers charging the individuals with a crime after finding illegal substances in the vehicles; however, the use of Google Translate to gain consent was challenged in court as an insufficient method of overcoming the language barrier, to differing degrees of success. In one case the motion was dismissed, yet in the other, the evidence was suppressed. These cases highlight both the lack of uniformity with which courts address issues of MT and consent as well as the pressing relevance of MT. 

While there is a mixed awareness of MT technology for legal use, states with significant Spanish-speaking populations such as New Mexico have begun to consider the technology more thoroughly. As Vieira et al. find, “The state court of New Mexico is an example of an institution that has considered MT in more detail. It has a track record of appointing non-English-speaking jurors and has provided MT use guidelines in relation to these appointments. The guidelines state that unedited MT should not be used for materials expected to fulfill a formal role, for example in court proceedings or as exhibits.” As MT only promises to become more prevalent in legal proceedings, it is important that these and other solutions, as will be discussed below, are carefully considered by the courts. 

Business

Another incredibly important realm of legal translation is that of business contracts, particularly in the case of US-China deals and translations, where the source and target languages are markedly different. If there is an ambiguity or a lack of a clear match in the target language, the translator may have to choose, and thus limit unbeknownst to the reader, a facet of the original meaning. According to Torbert, an expert in this field, “Even if translators can convey the ambiguity in the Chinese target-language document, a Chinese reader may interpret the ambiguity differently from the reader of the English source-language document. As a result, ambiguities can lead to serious misunderstandings.” To give an idea of the pervasiveness and seeming inescapability of such ambiguity, Torbert organized Chinese source language ambiguities into a daunting list of categories: singular or plural, verb tense, inclusion or exclusion in numbers and dates, conjunctions, abbreviations and English source language ambiguities into nouns and pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions, synonymous adjectives, adjective and adverbial phrase modification, negation, and post-modification. To provide an example of post-modification, for instance, Torbert details that 

“For example, in the English translation of the Catalogue Guiding Foreign Investment in 

Industry, an entry in the ‘encouraged’ category states ‘apparatus, instruments, and 

machines for cultural and office use in the manufacturing industry.’ The ambiguity is whether the phrase ‘for cultural and office use’ modifies only “machines” or ‘apparatus, 

instruments, and machines.’ In the original Chinese text, the phrase precedes ‘machines,’ 

so it clearly modifies only ‘machines’.” 

These ambiguity-inducing linguistic elements are clearly essential to legal writing. The answer then lies not in avoidance, but awareness, something that must apply to MT as well, but is arguably more difficult to get a machine to appreciate algorithmically.  

European Union

Beyond the scope of the US, the European Union’s parity system among its 24 official languages, in which each language version carries the authority of an original and no document is released until all translations are complete, is possibly the most impressively scaled feat of legal translation with 552 bilateral combinations. Because translation is not only cross-linguistic, but cross-cultural, additional issues arise in that the legal systems of EU member states themselves don’t align exactly, making perfect translation matches impossible. Furthermore, negotiations of course must occur in a language, creating an essential asymmetry and subtle prioritization of official and working languages. Perhaps filtering negotiations through the black box of MT, rather than the “procedural” languages of English, French, and German, could prevent this prioritization, yet in its current state, such technology would almost certainly obscure to some degree both meaning and the essential human to human understanding, even trust, that is necessary for successful negotiation.

Social Implications of Machine Translation

Law, clearly in the case of the US and more globally, has been translated and trans-linguistically negotiated more or less sufficiently over the years out of strict necessity. The laborious task of translating and negotiating terms, on a semantic as well as legal level however, is far from efficient. In order to save time and money, many firms may refuse cases brought up by a non-English speaker; or in cases where firms accept such cases, the additional time and money spent finding a translator and generating appropriate translations of documents often proves to be an unfeasible financial burden on the non-English speaker, which is especially detrimental if he or she is of an already marginalized class. In an effort to alleviate these financial burdens, speed up the process, and improve accessibility of legal services, some firms have turned to MT; however, MT is accompanied by its own set of significant advantages and disadvantages. The specialized even idiomatic vocabulary, the self-referential nature of legal texts, and the context dependent connotations of words differing from normal use are not only key components of legal writing but are also exactly the areas in which MT services such as Google Translate, which is trained on an enormous corpus of which legal texts make up only a fraction, are least accurate. For this reason, legal-specific MT software has emerged, yet its increased accuracy also comes with the risks of hyper specialization, as translation software designed for one sector of the law will lose accuracy if applied to another, and lessened accessibility, as subscription models are used to provide the revenue to train and maintain such specialized models, unlike free services such as Google Translate. 

Legal Implications of Machine Translation

Between 1980 and 2000, while the US population increased by 25 percent, the number of Americans speaking a language other than English at home nearly doubled. Thus, the malpractice issues posed by lawyers dealing with non-English documents are more relevant, but also with the growth of MT technology, potentially more addressable than ever. While there is a precedent for regulating interpreters in court, no such thing exists for translators or translation systems as of yet. Investing in machine translation software has recently proven to be more efficient, both in terms of saving time and money, than hiring human translators, yet the issue arises that lawyers are unable to verify accuracy of output themselves and are likely unaware of or even unlikely to understand the exact complexities of machine translation software behind the user interface. In addition to the dangers of a blind reliance, use of some MT systems such as Google Translate can also breach client confidentiality, sharing client information or data with the MT provider. Furthermore, consequences of poor translation can be detrimental to individuals as well as court systems more broadly: For instance, in the mid 1900s a mistranslation of some German phrases in a European Court of Justice judgment ultimately resulted in over 200,000 suits being inappropriately filed in German courts. 

In her discussion of potential malpractice issues arising from MT use for preparing legal documents, Wahler cites the 1932 T.J. Hooper case which held the defendant responsible for damages resulting from tugboats lost in a storm for failure to equip them with proper radios as precedent that under the standard of care sufficiently available modern technology can be reasonably expected to be employed. Thus, as non-English speaking individuals have a right to gain representation and understand their case proceedings as enabled by translation, lawyers have a responsibility to make use of modern technology as safely, effectively, and informedly as possible. 

Solutions

While the impacts of MT in legal translation, and human-conducted legal translation more broadly, are undoubtedly far reaching, from challenging consent to enhancing accessibility to expediting business proceedings, clear and necessary solutions, as Whaler advocates, include increasing regulation of translation providers, as is the case for interpreters and is substantiated by President Carter’s 1978 Court Interpreters Act, promoting a hybrid model of initial MT then review by a human translator, and certifying law-specific machine translation services for enhanced accuracy and confidentiality.  

In the specific English-Chinese business translation realm, Torbert suggests back translations, or memos highlighting preexisting ambiguities, and comparing the lengths of paragraphs to check for obvious additions or omissions (Chinese texts are typically three-quarters the length of English texts). Offering a front-end, pre-translation solution, Torbet also suggests that “English speakers can help their translators by writing precise and unambiguous English. These extra steps can be time-consuming, but they can save foreign businesspeople from spending even more time and money dealing with the serious consequences of unintended misunderstandings” (53). Although certainly useful in a business context, these solutions don’t scale across all translation issues in the US, indicating a need for categorized regulation based on the type of litigation. 

Other solutions include adopting ABA’s recommendations regarding translation, specifically Standard 7 drafted by ABA’s Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants: 

“To ensure quality in translated documents, courts should establish a translation protocol that includes: review of the document prior to translation for uniformity and plain English usage; selection of translation technology, document formats, and glossaries; and utilization of both a primary translator and reviewing translator.” 

Notably, this recommendation recognizes the reality of machine translation, the need for human review, and the benefits, when applicable, of drafting the English original in a more easily translatable form, or at least identifying potential problem areas, which  Torbet argues for as well. Additional steps to ensuring a more equitable use of MT in legal circumstances include requiring consent forms in the speaker’s first language before using Google Translate to protect client confidentiality, requiring some degree of education for lawyers regarding translation and machine translation services, developing an agency to regulate MT use in the law, and requiring proof of human translator review. As the world becomes more globalized, multilingual, and technologically advanced, the issue of machine translation and the law will only continue to grow in relevance. 

Robert Frost remarked that “poetry is what gets lost in translation;” we have a responsibility to ensure that legal meaning, that individual rights are not lost in translation as well. 

When Two Worlds Collide: Evaluating Free Speech and National Security Claims around Trump’s WeChat Ban

by Nalin Ranjan

Introduction

Immigrants have come a long way from hopelessly striving toward the 20th-century ideal of full assimilation into American society. Descendants of Jewish immigrants, whom many believed could not be trusted, can now proudly take credit for developments in the sciences, politics, medicine, and the arts; blossoming Chinatowns have replaced enclaves that once shied away from any expression of their heritage for fear of persecution; Mexicans whose ancestors worked under poor conditions and compensation in the fields founded the United Farm Workers to ensure their voices were heard. The stories of immigrants who refused to merely conform to the expectations placed upon them are endless. They have long known that the immigrant experience entails keeping close to — and not abandoning — their unique cultures and communities.

It was thus that President Trump’s August 2020 ban on Chinese messaging service WeChat was met with large-scale trepidation amongst the Chinese-American community. For the unfamiliar, WeChat is the world’s third-largest messaging service and by far the most popular means of communication amongst first-generation Chinese immigrants, with nearly three million active daily users in the US. For many, it is the primary — if not only — means of keeping in touch with fellow Chinese immigrants and families back home. However, given its Chinese ownership, the app has been subject to intense scrutiny amid escalating tensions between the two countries. 

Legal action against the ban was swiftly taken, resulting in a preliminary injunction of the original order. And before further arguments were made, the Biden administration walked back the Trump-era restrictions. However, they also made it clear that they would continue probing the issue and that a further ban was not entirely out of the question just yet. In this article, I examine relevant constitutional arguments that may have been made in favor of the ban had further litigation continued. Whether or not the ban stands to constitutional muster will ultimately determine whether it is a legal restriction with unfortunate consequences or a fundamental violation of certain Americans’ right to communicate freely.

Background

President Trump initially issued Executive Order 13943 in August 2020, prohibiting “any transaction that is related to WeChat by any person, or with respect to any property… with Tencent Holdings Ltd [the parent company of WeChat]… or any subsidiary of that entity.” The order outlined seven restrictions — each prohibiting a certain type of transaction with WeChat or its parent company —that together would have immediately rendered WeChat services both useless and illegal to use. In particular, restrictions 1-4 would have crippled WeChat’s technological infrastructure and content-distribution backbone, while restriction 6, which bars “any utilization of the WeChat mobile application’s constituent code, functions, or services,” would have been nothing short of an explicit ban on using WeChat’s services for then-users in the United States. 

Make no mistake: most of the restrictions of the order could only be reasonably challenged in court by Tencent itself.1 But restriction 6, whose target is the American populace rather than a service/network/other technology managed by Tencent, could reasonably be challenged by American WeChat users, as it places an explicit restriction on a place Americans may go to express speech. My analysis hereinafter will focus on restriction 6, because 1) resolving first amendment challenges to restriction 6 entails tackling issues that would arise in challenges to other portions of the ban, and 2) first amendment challenges to restriction 6 most closely echo the concerns of American WeChat users, who are the most important stakeholders in this issue. 

Constitutionally, time, place, or manner (TPM) restrictions are permissible, but they must 1) apply equally to all forms of speech subject to the TPM restriction (i.e. be content-neutral), and 2) pass the test of intermediate scrutiny.2 Given that the ban seeks to impose a broad and sweeping restriction on the use of WeChat, it is clear that it passes the content-neutrality criterion: no particular message substance would be favored over another since all communication on WeChat would be prohibited. Thus, the only — albeit substantial — remaining obstacle that the ban must overcome is the test of intermediate scrutiny, which requires that a TPM restriction 1) serve a significant governmental interest unrelated to speech content, 2) be narrowly tailored, and 3) leave open adequate channels for communication. 

Does there exist a significant government interest that would be served by the ban?

As stated in President Trump’s initial executive order, the central motivation for issuing the ban is to protect national security. (The executive order clarifies that other threats, such as those to foreign policy and the economy, derive from the primary threat to US national security.) The precise definition of “national security” is somewhat elusive, but most would agree with the National Law Review’s characterization, which says that it “encompasses safeguarding the nation’s borders against foreign threats and terrorism… [which, in particular, may include] cyber-crimes, cyber-attacks, and other internet-based crimes.” And like most, we will grant that national security is a significant governmental interest unrelated to the particular content of restricted speech in this case.

Would the ban — as outlined in the original executive order and implemented in the Commerce Secretary’s addendum — prevent some action that gravely endangers US national security? The executive order would answer affirmatively, holding that the relevant action it prevents is the capture of “vast swaths of information from its users, which threatens to allow the Chinese Communist Party access to Americans’ personal and proprietary information.” This conclusion, however, is based on multiple unsound foundations.

First, the characterization of the information WeChat collects as “personal and proprietary” is misleading, if not plainly incorrect. Upon registering, users must agree to a privacy policy that explicitly describes how one’s information will be shared with other subdivisions of Tencent, service providers (middlemen providing services that enable the functioning of the app), third parties with whom the user interacts, advertising partners, and notably, governments/regulatory agencies that request it.  Of course, this finding is wholly unsurprising to the average WeChat user. In addition to the common knowledge that using an online service will expose one’s information to its administrator, there is also a common cultural element at play: many WeChat users, as first-generation Chinese immigrants, are familiar with the authoritative role the CCP takes in regulating the flow of information and communication. A sentiment of an anonymous user on tech forum SlashDot sums up the typical WeChat user’s attitudes on this issue: “WeChat is a great app, and I use it all the time. But I have never considered it to be private.” Ultimately, users are knowingly consenting to share their data with WeChat and its wide range of affiliates, so the suggestion that users’ “personal and proprietary” information will land into the hands of an actor that shouldn’t have access to it — including the CCP — is both legally and empirically incorrect. 

Second, the mere collection of “vast swaths of data” on consenting American users is not in itself a threat to national security, even if this data lands into the hands of presumed US adversaries like the CCP. It is certainly true that WeChat follows the typical social media company strategy of collecting a wide range of identifying information and day-to-day activity data from users that may compromise their individual privacy, but it is difficult to see how such perfunctory data could be used to threaten US national security as a whole. Knowledge of what certain consenting individuals are doing, where they are going, and what some of their preferences are seldom, if ever, provides the edge needed to engineer large-scale attacks on US citizens or institutions. And the US government has implicitly recognized this fact: the combined revenue of the data analytics and online advertising market — both heavily reliant on collection and exchange of highly specific personalized data — totaled almost $100 billion in 2020 with no indication of slowing down. These markets, which feature thousands of companies of varying sizes, are officially sanctioned — and even participated in — by the US government. Were the possession of terabytes of perfunctory data truly a prospect with imminent national security concerns, history suggests governmental oversight would be swift and uncompromising — or at the very least, more stringent than the lax attitude currently adopted that treats personal data as little more than an arbitrary, freely exchangeable good.3 

In short, there is little evidence to suggest that a blanket ban on the use of WeChat would significantly remedy any existing national security vulnerability.

Would the WeChat ban leave open adequate channels for communication?

As established in Ward v. Rock of Racism, “the basic test for gauging the sufficiency of alternative channels is whether the speaker is afforded a forum that is accessible and where the intended audience is expected to pass.” In other words, the subject of a TPM speech restriction must be afforded another venue in which the intended audience may reasonably participate in a similar capacity. Appellate court precedent has established this requirement as one admitting a strict interpretation. For example, refusal to grant a permit to the Million Youth March sufficiently close to the movement’s desired location in Harlem was ruled in 1998 to be a First Amendment violation, because the city’s proposed relocation to Randall’s Island would have “adversely affect[ed] plaintiff’s ability to reach its target audience” by “limit[ing] [the movement’s] reach to [only] those who make an affirmative decision to travel to [Randall’s Island].” 

The alternatives afforded to WeChat users, unfortunately, are quite worse than a two-mile walk eastward to Randall’s Island. As Peng notes in her testimony, the only available alternatives to contact relatives abroad are costly and provide vastly inferior functionality:

“Without WeChat, I will have to go back to the old way of buying calling cards and making expensive international calls. I will also not be able to reach all of my family members with one click. I will not be able to look at them through video calls with my own eyes. Nor can they see that I am well with their own eyes.” 

For the unfamiliar, the reason that Peng would have to go back to calling cards is that most apps that seem like viable alternatives (WhatsApp, Snapchat, Messenger, Line, etc.) are blocked by the Great Chinese Firewall

And for those whose only proficient language is Mandarin (or another dialect spoken in China),4 the lack of other Chinese-friendly messaging apps would all but require attaining sufficient proficiency in another language. Even if we discount the many cases where this is effectively impossible (e.g., for senior citizens), such a requirement would fundamentally run contrary to the American notion of free expression. Learning a particular language should never be an explicit prerequisite to communicate, nor is the government within its right to revoke access to platforms so as to implicitly institute this as a requirement.

Conclusion

For now, Chinese-American WeChat users can breathe a sigh of relief. Yet it is clear that the issue is far from resolved, as the Biden Administration has indicated that a subsequent restriction is well within the realm of possibility. However, amid ever-changing political headwinds, American WeChat users can cling steadfastly to the legal rock that is intermediate scrutiny. Indeed, striking down the Trump-era ban would have only required that one intermediate scrutiny criterion be unmet. That the ban spectacularly fails multiple criteria is a serious indication that subsequent administrations will need to dedicate genuine, good-faith effort to crafting a more measured response that does not irreparably sever certain Americans’ access to their most significant outlet of communication.

1 Foreign entities may bring suit in US courts; see Servicios Azucareros v. John Deere.

2 First developed in Craig v. Boren.

3 See this article, for example. Most data exchanged over US networks is unregulated. That is, most companies are not under any obligation not to share your data with third parties, who can in turn do as they wish with that data (including selling it again). And none of them are obligated to tell you what they do with your data.

4 No publicly available sources have an estimate on the true number of English-deficient WeChat users in the United States. But an extremely conservative estimate would likely lie in the hundred-thousands.

It’s Not Just Me, It’s Also You: How Shared DNA Complicates Consent

by Ethan Magistro

With just a sample of your DNA, you, your immediate family members, and many other distant relatives can be identified. Your genetic information can be used to determine you and your families’ insurance policies, expose medical conditions you didn’t even know you had, and, in the worst case, be used to identify and arrest someone you may be distantly related to. The deoxyribose nucleic acid (DNA) contained within every cell of our bodies holds intimate details about each of us. Yet when users send sample DNA to direct-to-consumer (DTC) testing kit companies, only their consent is needed to share information that belongs to many of their family members. Because of this, I argue we should drastically rethink our understanding of DNA. Rather than conceptualizing DNA as analogous to other types of private property that can be traded with individual consent, DNA trade should require the shared consent of family members. The difficulty in obtaining that consent points to a colossal need for the development of genetic privacy laws.

To understand why DNA should be understood as a form of shared property, it will be helpful to outline the economic and legal landscape of consumer genetic testing. The past few years saw a spike in interest for DNA testing and an explosion in the DTC testing kit market, which is dominated by AncestryDNA and 23andMe. Although the market has died down since then, worries about political and enforcement abuses of genetic information and medical privacy concerns are still in focus. 

Concerns about enforcement abuses of genetic information usually involve the Fourth Amendment, which protects citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures. This was exemplified in Maryland v. King, a U.S. Supreme Court case which held that genetic testing is similar to fingerprinting, and is therefore a reasonable search under the Fourth Amendment, to the chagrin of privacy advocates. The latter issue of medical privacy deals with Title I and II of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act Of 2008 (GINA) and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA), both of which are notoriously lackluster in protecting privacy, especially regarding DTC testing, which neither law protects. Beyond this, some states have genetic privacy laws with varying levels of consent required by companies. Many of them provide little extra protection. This lack of privacy protection has caused the DTC industry to mostly self-regulate, which has been spotty at best: in their privacy policies, some genetic-testing companies wrongly claim they comply with HIPAA, while some companies have no privacy policies at all.

A lack of strong DNA privacy laws presents an imminent threat to genetic privacy because of how valuable a sample of DNA can be. Genetic information’s longevity, immutability (you cannot change your DNA like you can a lost password) and predictive ability about future health make it extremely valuable. Yet DNA is unique in that it is able to identify an individual as well as their family members, since people share large portions of DNA with their relatives. This is why it has been so often used to gain leads in criminal cases

Being so valuable, it makes sense why shoddy privacy policies exploit a lack of laws to gain control of DNA. Deceptive policies mislead individuals to give away most of the control over genetic information, and, therefore, their family’s genetic information, without ever knowing it. With that control, companies can trade or exchange this data, often selling it to unknown third-party companies who can use it as they wish. Bigger companies like AncestryDNA or 23andMe are no safer. They may truthfully claim they do not sell your genetic data to third party companies, but the independent labs they send the sample to for analysis make no such guarantees

It is hard for consumers to notice that. A large company’s connection to third parties is often inconspicuously snuck into their privacy policies. Before it was shut down in late 2020, AncestryHealth, the division of AncestryDNA designed to identify genetic health risks, sent DNA samples to a third-party group called PWNHealth for analysis. A link to PWN’s privacy policy is at the very end of AncestryDNA’s terms and conditions, which itself is in small print at the bottom of the AncestryDNA webpage. PWNHealth’s privacy policy is far less robust than Ancestry’s. Two points stick out:

You have the right to request in writing that we restrict how your health information is used or disclosed. For most requests, under the law, we are not required to agree to your request.

and

“If you request that Ancestry delete your information held by Ancestry, such request will not result in the deletion of information held by PWNHealth. Such information will be retained by PWNHealth in accordance with applicable law and this Privacy Policy.”

It is clear that PWNHealth has no intention of removing or restricting its use of submitted genetic data. Even if PWNHealth claims that they will only trade “non-identifiable data,” the shocking ease with which genetic data can be re-identified makes this claim essentially worthless. So while AncestryDNA will not sell your genetic data, PWNHealth can and will.

Despite all of these concerns, PWNHealth is still acting within the law so long as a user consents to its terms of use and, therefore, how it uses your genetic data. But is an individual’s consent enough considering that their DNA sample contains information about their relatives? It should not be. DNA contains valuable, identifiable information about a user’s family and distant relatives that should not be shared without their knowledge. Instead, companies who offer DTC genetic testing should require consent from those with whom an individual shares the majority of their DNA.

Already that idea sounds burdensome. Should someone really have to call their parents, grandparents, and siblings if they want to understand more about their own medical information? What about those who are estranged from their families, or people who are adopted and do not know their biological relatives? Here, a middle path exists between individual consent and shared consent. Perhaps for medical information, relevant to an individual who may want to alter their lifestyle to decrease the risk of a condition manifesting, an individual should use a DTC without providing shared consent. A kit designed to find unknown relatives who may wish to remain private, on the other hand, should require companies to ask for consent from those relatives.

Yet this argument ignores the threat that third-party actors pose. The importance of genetic privacy is less about keeping individual issues private from the family and more about keeping familial DNA out of the hands of third parties like PWNHealth who can trade that genetic information and other groups who could de-identify it or sell it. If you must get a genetic test for medical reasons, it would be wiser to do so in a clinical setting, where HIPAA and GINA offer comprehensive privacy and protection. Without that same protection, DTC tests put many of your relatives’ information at risk.

What could a stronger form of shared consent look like in the DTC arena? One analogy that provides some insight comes from a complaint filed by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) against Facebook in which the FTC challenged Facebook’s misleading privacy policies and deceptive practices. The complaint alleged that Facebook “told its users that they could limit those who could see their posts to just ‘Friends,’ when in reality—and without warning to the user—doing so would also allow developers of third-party applications used by their ‘Friends’ to access the post.” In other words, “third party applications” of a user’s Facebook friends could look at that user’s posts even if the user did not consent to that action.

This is not a perfect analogy. A post shared with a friend, which is then unwittingly shared with a third-party application, is not the same as DNA, which is physically shared by multiple people. Nonetheless, the FTC acted when Facebook gave third parties access to a user’s post, even when that user had no option to consent to this. In a case involving genetic data, it’s feasible that the FTC could challenge DTC companies for not adequately informing users that their familial genetic data, which they provided without their family’s consent, was now in third-party companies’ hands.

Like those users who had a reasonable expectation that only their friends would see their posts, people who have never taken a DNA test or given away a DNA sample would not expect their genetic information to be in the hands of a group such as PWNHealth. There is a reasonable expectation that genetic information is private. If someone wants to give away valuable information about you — even if it is partly their information too — they ought to seek out your consent.   

Ultimately, the easiest remedy for the lack of genetic familial privacy and the need for shared consent would be stronger genetic privacy laws. The lack of robust genetic privacy laws already leaves consumers unprotected against bad actors looking to profit from their DNA. As genetic testing technology improves and we become able to gain more information from smaller samples of someone’s genome, not having ownership over your DNA could pose a threat to your descendants in the future. Technology that fails to respect these repercussions and ignores the need for consent from multiple parties cannot continue to outpace legislation. Although the complexity of shared consent and its complication of privacy policies leave room for the FTC to police weaker terms and conditions, it would be far more beneficial for all parties if strict regulation, created through legislation, protected the blueprint of life.