About Free Speech on Social Media!

The use of data has now become the world's greatest business. Approximately $1.4 trillion of Alphabet's (Google's owner) and Facebook's combined market value of $1.9 trillion is generated from users’ data and firms’ mining of it, net of cash, physical and intangible assets and accumulated research and development. They are not yet sated. This huge appetite for data is of growing concern to policy makers for both political and economic reasons. Scale and virality are so important to the business model of tech companies that they are lobbying relentlessly against regulation. Any progress must make data more evenly accessible and allow potential rivals to develop and intensify competition.

Social networks were intended to be neutral platforms, allowing users to provide content without editorial decisions. Twitter's leaders joked that "they were the free-speech wing of the free-speech party". However, as they became more active at algorithmically ranking content uploaded by users and restricting unwanted material, they evolved towards an editorial role.

Since 2017, the inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, has repeatedly warned about the dangers of manipulation of the internet around the spread of hate and disinformation, saying that: “Humanity connected by technology on the web is functioning in a dystopian way. We have online abuse, prejudice, bias, polarization, fake news, there are lots of ways in which it is broken.” One tenth of Americans think social media are beneficial; almost two-thirds believe they cause harm.

A disturbing trend is that we have now seen several examples of violent actions perpetrated offline by isolated individuals who are motivated by hateful rhetoric. For example, in mid-October, a social media campaign resulted in the assassination of Samuel Paty, a teacher in France, who had used cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad to talk about freedom of expression as part of the national curriculum. This illustrates the growing propensity to call for swift and vicious retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought. The result is a constant narrowing of the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of retaliation.

Freedom of expression is a fundamental value in America. Freedom of speech must be protected, all things being equal. Like any value, freedom of speech must be balanced against other values, such as equality, safety and strong democratic participation. The First Amendment protects freedom of speech by prohibiting Congress from restricting the freedom of expression of the press or the public. The amendment does not regulate the freedom of expression of individuals with respect to private companies, such as Facebook or Twitter, which may prohibit speech otherwise protected by the First Amendment. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act provides additional protection that exempts online platforms from liability for published content, although there are an increasing number of exceptions to this rule.

While it is essential to protect unpopular speech from government interference, it is far more complicated to protect ourselves from unchecked and malicious speech broadcasted by unregulated private companies, such as Facebook or Twitter, which can expose us to very serious risks. We must take every measure to mitigate these risks. In Europe, regulation has been strengthened and the European Commission is going to publish a Digital Services Act to impose new obligations on Internet companies.

There is an urgent need to address the unresolved issues surrounding online freedom of speech. How should we regulate the private infrastructure that has come to support freedom of expression around the world?

The pressure is growing on tech firms to restrict ever more material. As private companies they can set their own rules about what to publish (within the confines of the laws of the countries where they operate). Some tech bosses have been rethinking their approach to the trade-offs between free expression and safety. This year as misinformation about covid-19 flourished, Facebook took a harder line on fake news about health, including banning anti-vaccination ads. Facebook took a step forward on October 22nd, 2020 launching its “Oversight Board”, a watchdog made up of 20 members who will scrutinize its moderation decisions and issue binding rulings. The board scope is narrower than some had hoped – it merely applies Facebook’s rules, rather than setting them.

What else can be done to keep the internet a tolerable place while protecting the freedom of expression? An increasingly common answer in Silicon Valley is to draw a distinction between freedom of speech and “freedom of reach”: leave posts up but make them less visible and viral. Platforms are adding more labels to content, warning users that it is misleading.

Additionally, a free-speech lobby group, has suggested that platforms could outsource their moderation decisions to non-governmental “social-media councils”, something like the press watchdogs that in many countries hold newspapers to a voluntary code.

Ideas don't die. They outlive men: By expressing unpopular ideas in 399 B.C., Socrates was unjustly accused and sentenced to death - he had not presented a defense for freedom of expression. Today, 2400 years later, the question of freedom of speech still arises. This freedom is the right to dissent. And it must be protected. Any restriction of debate will hurt democracy, especially those who do not have the power and the means to express themselves. The possibility of a good-faith disagreement without dire consequences must prevail.

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