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Brief #35 – Technology

By Charles A. Rubin

Who Gets to Decide What Speech is Allowed on Social Media? 

February 3, 2021

Policy Summary

In the aftermath of the January 6, 2021 riot at the US Capitol inspired by then President Trump, Twitter and Facebook banned him permanently from their platforms for violations of their terms of service. In the days that followed and in the wake of other individuals being prohibited from using those services, many in the right wing camp moved to services such as Parler and Gab. These services were removed from both the Apple and Android application stores and Parler’s servers, hosted in the Amazon Web Services cloud infrastructure, were shut down.

While these moves were applauded as a justified response to hate speech and incitement to violence, the ability of these companies to take these actions unilaterally present a challenge to due process and a risk to every viewpoint’s right to be heard. There is a national debate that needs to occur and the Biden Administration needs to lead in determining how all media, electronic and otherwise, need to comport.

Analysis

In October 2020, President Trump persuaded the two app providers, Apple and Google to remove TikTok from their app stores in a move to pressure the company to sell operations and recommendation algorithms to US entities. This move was in response to Trump’s insistence that TikTok, as it was then constituted, posed a threat to US national security. In January, these same companies with Amazon joining the fray, took it upon themselves to exercise a similar ban against the social media company Parler that they had determined had become a haven for right wing extremists.

Whereas the ban was the correct course given the threat to the republic, it opens the door to future actions that might be more arbitrary in nature. The question that is raised, though, is who gets to decide what speech is permitted on social media platforms and what recourse does a platform or individual have if they feel they are being unjustly disqualified from participating or operating their service?

This is not entirely a new problem but the speed and immediacy of the internet make it one that the Biden Administration must tackle early on. In his Inaugural Address Joe Biden made a vow of a kind that few Presidents have in American history. He warned of “a rise of political extremism, white supremacy, domestic terrorism,” which, he pledged, “we must confront and we will defeat.” This is an effort that will largely center on controlling the information that is allowed to circulate on-line.

Donald Trump showed Americans how easy it was to exploit the First Amendment protections and the power of social media in order to mount politically effective disinformation campaigns. He may not have unleashed the monster but he gave it new agency. President Biden, we hope, is setting us on the path to enacting reforms that protect free speech but set guardrails for the digital age.

Resistance Resources

  1. The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation focuses on a host of critical issues at the intersection of technological innovation and public policy
  2. Access Now defends and extends the digital rights of users at risk around the world
  3. The Electronic Freedom Foundation is a nonprofit defending digital privacy, free speech, and innovation for 30 years and counting.
  4. Fight for the Future is group of artists, engineers, activists, and technologists who fight for a future where technology liberates not oppresses.
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