Damned if You Do, Damned if You Don’t – Big Tech’s Free Speech Conundrum

Social media platforms are under fire on freedom of speech after they banned President Trump: Twitter, Facebook, Youtube… in fact an impressive number of internet services have followed suit Every Social Media Platform Donald Trump Is Banned From Using (So Far) | Glamour.

Social media are not just any business, they often function as the town square. Blocking users has wide consequences, which is part of the reason why the companies have hesitated. Is it censorship? No, censorship is when the government limits the freedom of expression of a citizen. Freedom of expression is not a duty for private companies to broadcast every expression. They are free to make the choices they like. However, the rest of us are also free to criticize the choices they make.

It is for example easy to criticize the tech companies double standards: Internet platforms are happy to monetise user content but not to take any form of responsibility for it, that falls strictly with the uploading user. Many cases exist, since long before President Trump, where internet platforms have interfered with content.

How can social media companies escape this trap? One the one hand, editing content would concede to taking some editorial responsibility. On the other hand, it is clear that bad actors can abuse the platforms if they don’t.

So far, the companies have decided themselves, often pointing to user agreement or opaque policy, perhaps dozens of pages with no indication of which specific part was violated. Or responding to demands of more action by saying it would “break the internet”, but sometimes promising to hire a few thousand more moderators.

That has not worked so well. The result is arbitrary decisions, lack of transparency and legal certainty. It looks more like the consciences of the top management or board members guide those decisions than anything legally solid.

Here’s the answer – and I have brought this idea before (read Netopia more closely, Big Tech execs!) – take a page from the media. Or advertising. Or cinema age ratings. Or games for that matter. Set up an independent oversight board. No, not the Facebook oversight board, that is not independent. It should be separate from any company. Make the rules transparent and easily accessible. Appoint media, tech and legal experts as decision-makers. Make all decisions public, that educates the entire sector as well as the outside world and creates a corpus that can be referenced in future cases. Appoint an appeals board, which can hear complaints from either side of the ruling. Fund the whole thing with fees from the participating companies. As an added advantage, this system can deal with different situations in different parts of the world (ask games how). The downside is that as any standard, this will put some limit to competition. It would be more difficult to paint oneself as “the ethical platform”. But that hasn’t really been the focus before, so why start now?

It’s not difficult. It’s called self-regulation. Happens all the time. Do it right.