The founder of a nonprofit that advocates for freedom of speech on the internet is sounding the alarm on government weaponization of “middleware” companies, which he said are essentially shell organizations for government censorship.

“The reason that they call it competitive middleware is because they’re trying to create a competitive industry around middleware compliance to avoid any antitrust situations that could arise,” Mike Benz, the executive director of Foundation for Freedom Online (FFO), told The Tennessee Star Tuesday.

Since government organizations cannot outrightly censor news outlets without running afoul of the First Amendment, said Benz, government agencies are farming the censorship out to private companies.

Benz, a business law attorney, was in charge of the cyber and Big Tech portfolios for the U.S. State Department, where he served as deputy assistant secretary for International Communications and Information Technology, according to his biography.

In that role, he helped formulate and negotiate U.S. policy on cyber issues and interface with private industry and civil society in the Big Tech space.

One of the most powerful middleware companies, according to Benz, is NewsGuard, a relatively popular self-appointed arbiter of internet truth, which ranks websites based on credibility.

As previously reported by The Star, the company gives perfect rating scores to news websites that claimed that the Hunter Biden laptop story was “Russian disinformation,” a claim that has been proven to be false.

Even the company’s CEO claimed in 2020 that the Biden laptop story was “likely” Russian disinformation.

“One of the things that I find most grotesque is that there is nothing natural about NewsGuard,” said Benz. “This is not a market that would exist without government pressure.”

Describing the new middleware market as a “cartel” that he said he believes will be run like OPEC in the United States, the European Union and NATO countries, Benz said that the ultimate goal is to completely eradicate opposition media.

“You pay off all these people who are affiliated with the state, and that’s what protects you from the state,” he said. “The fact is, this is a hard-nosed national security state plan to eliminate opposition media. The taxpayer is being charged to subsidize their own silence.”

According to Benz, the Department of Defense (DOD) gave NewsGuard a $750,000 grant.

“They don’t run a very big shop. $750,000 is a lot of money for NewsGuard – and who did they use that money to censor? Opposition to the DOD,” he said.

He said while some members of Congress are attempting to fight back, they’ve got their work cut out for them.

“Ultimately, they’re fighting the same people who indicted Trump,” Benz said.

He said he thinks Congress will have to use budget shutdowns as a negotiation tactic to end the censorship.

In a Monday video posted to Twitter, Benz warned that the situation is even more dire in Europe, where organizations like NewsGuard are positioning themselves as “disinformation” compliance services.

“And one thing to really be out in the lookout for here is something around disinformation compliance. Now, this is going to be big because on August 25th, just weeks away, the EU is going to kick into motion these new rules requiring compliance with EU disinformation rules for Twitter to continue to do business in the EU market,” he said in the video.

“NewsGuard is already billing itself as a disinformation compliance service to comply with these new EU disinformation laws,” he said. “So you have this situation right now where what they’re trying to do is rather than have DHS force Twitter through coercive pressure and twisting their arm, they’re going to have entities like NewsGuard step in. And in order to comply with the EU disinformation regulations, you’re going to need to buy news guards disinformation compliance services.”

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Pete D’Abrosca is a reporter at The Tennessee Star and The Star News Network. Follow Pete on Twitter.
Photo “Mike Benz” by Mike Benz.