Updated: January 20, 2021 7:00:18 am
The irony of a social media blackout of a sitting US President was not lost on Garry Kasparov. “When the state attacks a company for offending an official is when you’re getting closer (to censorship), not the other way around”, the chess grandmaster and former world champion who represented the USSR, and thus knows a thing or two on the subject, tweeted a couple of days after Twitter, Facebook, and others kicked Donald Trump off their platforms.
The tightrope walk between regulating fake news/hate content and fostering free speech is a difficult one, and more subjective than what constitutes censorship. On one hand, there is a growing view that social media companies were right to suspend Trump’s accounts; there is on the other a compelling realisation of the enormous power that these platforms wield over the public discourse, and thereby the impact that they have on democracy.
Leaders from the European Union, which has taken a leading role in regulating the tech giants with investigations, fines, and legislation, were the first to criticise the de-platforming of Trump. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian dissident Alexei Navalny expressed concern, and a bevy of EU officials raised fresh questions on the regulation of Big Tech.
But on the question of coercive actions against the tech majors, it’s a divided house. “Another way to look at this is that forcing publishers to publish the government’s speech is what happens in China,” Jameel Jaffer, director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University said in a tweet, underlining the complexity involved in evaluating the media ban issue on merit, and the pitfalls of viewing this in black-and-white terms.
How the ban unfolded
After four years of largely accommodating Trump, Facebook chose the morning after the attack on the US Capitol to suspend him. Twitter, Snapchat, Shopify, Twitch, and others followed. On January 7, CEO Mark Zuckerberg posted that both Facebook and Instagram (which is owned by Facebook) had blocked Trump “indefinitely and for at least the next two weeks until the peaceful transition of power is complete”.
It was an overnight reversal of the tech companies’ policy on Trump, and other political leaders, which has largely been one of symbiotic association. Most of these companies thrive around the amplification of spectacle, as Prof Ramesh Srinivasan of the Department of Information Studies at UCLA puts it. Trump provided the spectacle almost daily, allowing platforms such as Twitter the chance to amplify it for assured traffic. In banning him, Twitter and Facebook clearly responded to growing calls for coercive action against them for having allowed the President to peddle lies and hate on their platforms over the last four years.
Of greater concern was the action against Parler, a right-wing social networking alternative to Twitter. Amazon booted it out of its cloud hosting service Amazon Web Services (AWS), and Apple and Google pulled it from their app stores, so Parler effectively went dark.
The incident demonstrated the enormous power that Amazon wields as a web infrastructure service provider that companies around the world have to rely on just to stay live. AWS controlled 45 per cent of the cloud infrastructure in 2019, according to estimates from technology research company Gartner. Google and Microsoft control much of the rest. The action against Parler showed how the bigger tech players can destroy new competition simply by virtue of their stranglehold over the cloud infrastructure, a throwback to the Microsoft-Netscape fight a generation ago.
Big Tech’s defence
The problem with some of the arguments put forth by these companies are the inconsistencies involved. Platforms including Facebook and Twitter said they would give high-profile users more leeway when it came to violating user policies, but applied it differentially. In September 2019, when Facebook vice president Nick Clegg announced a broadening of the company’s “newsworthiness” exemption for posts by political leaders, the move was seen as an effort to simply buttress an exemption it had coincidentally created the year Trump took office.
In March 2020, Facebook and Twitter deleted posts by Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro and Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro for Covid-19 misinformation. But Trump and his White House, equally responsible for peddling misinformation about the pandemic, escaped. It took Twitter until May to flag that a tweet by Trump “glorified violence” — as the Black Lives Matter protests raged, the President had tweeted, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts”.
That Zuckerberg chose to suspend Trump the moment he lost his last modicum of political leverage, as opposed to the moment he was no longer President, is telling, technology writer Will Oremus said on Medium. “This was never about respect for the office of the presidency, it was about deference to power,” he wrote.
The action to black out Trump came after the Capitol mayhem was over and Congress had ratified the victory of President-elect Joe Biden. In his final hours on Twitter, Trump once again blamed Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act — which allows Internet platforms to publish and moderate content from third parties without being held legally liable for what they say, and which the President had earlier threatened to repeal — for “banning” free speech.
Actions they could face
Biden, who will take oath on Wednesday, has said he would like to repeal Section 230 to increase moderation and reduce the spread of fake news. But doing it will be tricky.
Self-certification has been the chosen route so far. Facebook has an oversight committee to look at debatable content. Twitter has cited its own employees as a pressure group, saying a section of them demanded in a letter last week that the company’s leaders permanently suspend Trump’s account. In an internal letter addressed to chief executive Jack Dorsey and his top executives that was reviewed and quoted by The Washington Post, around 350 Twitter employees reportedly requested an investigation into the past several years of corporate actions that led to Twitter’s role in the January 6 riot. Incidentally, Dorsey, in a series of tweets on January 14, defended his company’s decision to permanently suspend Trump, but admitted that it could set a ”dangerous precedent”.
Many argue that removing Section 230 protection would have a deleterious impact on free speech as networks double down on moderating far more than they currently do. Experts agree that while the rules and guidelines of social networks have evolved over time, which is a good thing, they are not being consistently applied throughout the world. That could change now, given the debate that Trump’s blackout had triggered.
A double-edged sword
The EU has shown that it is possible to apply regulations to technology companies without stifling them completely or snuffing out their business models. But this, as UCLA’s Srinivasan points out, is a double-edged sword — fine when used in your favour but a flagrant violation when used against you.
In May 2018, a court ruling forced Trump to unblock several dozen followers whom he had shut out of the @realDonaldTrump handle after they posted critical replies to his tweets. They sued, arguing they were entitled to follow the handle because the President used it to make official announcements and comment on public affairs. Applying this same logic, it can be argued that what works one way should also work in reverse — and a tech company does not have the power to shut out a sitting President.
There is also the larger question of whether the digital platforms have been neutral arbiters. Evidently not. All of them are for-profit corporations with close ties to the state apparatus, something that will need redressal. And they’ve consistently used their powers arbitrarily. For instance, these platforms have repeatedly blocked the ability of Wikileaks to accept donations on PayPal and other payment intermediaries.
In 2010, the DNA sequencing company Complete Genomics said that “an interruption of services by Amazon Web Services, on whom we rely to deliver finished genomic data to our customers, would result in our customers not receiving their data on time.” At the time of its initial public offering in 2011, gaming platform Zynga had cautioned that the termination by AWS — which at the time hosted half the traffic for Zynga’s games — of their agreement, could cause it to simply vanish. Parler is only the latest.
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