The decision by social media giants to police more content, along with banning U.S. President Donald Trump and some of his supporters from posting, is intensifying a debate in Europe over how to regulate platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.
The hotly contested debate has mostly focused on whether governments should intervene to censor and curtail freedom of speech, or whether they should protect opinion from being blocked or scrubbed by the social media giants, however offensive the views.
But a growing number of European leaders see a third way to reduce fake news, hate speech, disinformation, and poisonous personal attacks — by treating social media providers not as owners of neutral platforms connecting consumers with digital content creators but as publishers in their own right.
This would help sidestep fears over state censorship of speech, they say.
Amending laws to make them legally responsible, just as traditional newspapers and broadcasters are for the content they carry, would render the social media companies liable for defamation and slander lawsuits.
By blocking content and banning some users, social media companies have unwittingly boosted the argument that they are content providers, as they are now in practice taking on a greater role as editors of opinion.
“I do think there’s a real debate now to be had about the status of the big internet companies and whether they should be identified as mere platforms or as publishers, because when you start editorializing, then you’re in a different world,” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson told a parliamentary committee last week.
Many European Union leaders have criticized social media companies for banishing Trump and his supporters from their platforms. Facebook has blocked or deleted content that uses the phrase, “Stop the Steal,” which refers to false claims of election fraud.
Twitter says it has suspended more than 70,000 accounts of QAnon conspiracy theorists who believe Trump is waging a secret war against elite Satan-worshipping pedophiles in government, business, and the media.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed her concerns about the blocking and deleting, calling it a step too far. “The right to freedom of opinion is of fundamental importance,” her spokesperson, Steffen Seibert, told reporters.
Some countries led by populist governments, such as Poland, are considering drafting legislation that would prohibit Facebook, Twitter, and other social media companies from censoring opinions, fearing the social media giants will censor them.
But political pressure is also mounting in other countries for the state to regulate speech and to police social media platforms.
The idea that social media companies should be subject to similar regulations as newspapers and television and radio broadcasters is not new. Newspaper owners have long bristled at the social media platforms being treated differently under the law from traditional media. They have complained that Facebook and others are piggybacking off the content they produce while reaping massive profits selling ads.
Last year, Facebook pushed back on the idea of social media platforms being treated like traditional media, arguing in a report that they should be placed in a separate category halfway between newspapers and the telecommunications industry.
The company agreed that new regulatory rules are needed but argued they should focus on the monitoring and removal of mechanisms that firms might put in place to block “harmful” posts, rather than restrictions on companies carrying specific types of speech or being liable for the content.
Johnson’s advocacy of treating social media giants like traditional media is being echoed in the United States, where Congress passed the Communications Decency Act in 1996. The measure largely allowed the companies to regulate themselves and shielded them from liability for much of the content posted on their platforms.
Section 230 of the legislation stated: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”
Ironically, Section 230 has drawn the disapproval of both Trump and President-elect Joe Biden. Both have called for the section’s repeal, which would make social media legally responsible for what people post, rendering them vulnerable to lawsuits for defamation and slander.
Last week, Biden told The New York Times he favored the internet’s biggest liability shield being “revoked, immediately.”