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What role should governments play in regulating speech online?

Molly Wood Aug 24, 2018
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GREG BAKER/AFP/Getty Images

This week, the European Commission said it’s drafting new rules to get companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter to take any terrorist content off their platforms within an hour. And while this plan has a long way to go to become law, it’s part of a broader move to increase tech regulation in Europe where many countries have strict hate-speech laws. Lizzie O’Leary spoke with Mark Scott, Politico’s chief technology correspondent, who says taking down terrorist threats is actually the easiest part when it comes to regulating speech online. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Mark Scott: Where it gets more difficult is legitimate political speech that may be abhorrent to many, but still is free speech and political speech. And, therefore, where do you draw the line between something that is obviously simple and easy to decide on, which is ISIS propaganda? That will be taken down really quickly, and frankly the companies are doing a pretty good job of that at the moment. Where they are very loathe to get involved and where the politicians are trying to push them is, “We want you to regulate and take down ‘hate speech.”’ Now, it’s very difficult to define in many instances what hate speech is because frankly you and I might think it’s hate speech but to someone else that is a legitimate political discourse happening on the web.

Lizzie O’Leary: When we think about regulating online speech, you wrote about sort of where the burden lies. Is there a framework that could satisfy all the different parties here — governments, tech companies, and, you know, people like you and me who use this stuff everyday?

Scott: I think the short answer is no. The issue you have though is who do we want to be in control? Many people, despite what’s happened recently with Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, trust these big tech companies frankly more than they do their politicians. And therefore when it comes to policing what is and isn’t allowed on the web, do you want a politician, many of which frankly do not have the technical expertise to do this? Or do you want a private company like Google, which frankly doesn’t have any need from a purely fiduciary perspective to pay any attention to voters. They have to pay attention to their investors.

O’Leary: Well, and then we also get into this territory of what is Twitter? What is Facebook? It is, after all, a company and not the government and therefore do the same sort of thoughts about free speech apply?

Scott: Well, the answer is they don’t, because Facebook and Twitter, they are private companies.

O’Leary: They’re not utilities.

Scott: I think some people in D.C. and Brussels would like them to become utilities, but until that happens, they are private entities. And you and I and everyone else who uses these social media companies, we’re the product. We are there to be sold advertising onto. And, we’ve seen this recently with the Alex Jones issue, you as an individual do not have a God-given right to be on Twitter. That just isn’t a thing.

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