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Tech regulating speech: Careful there

/ 05:10 AM January 24, 2021

What happens when an elected official who’s still in office tries to overturn an election result? This happens everywhere, and it doesn’t raise eyebrows—unless it happens in America.

After the storming of the Capitol, conglomerates like Boeing, Chevron, American Express, and Verizon all came out in defense of American democracy. The problem is that none of them can have the same impact as tech companies in this space.

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Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitch, Reddit, Discord, Stripe, Pinterest, and TikTok (bet they enjoyed that!) either banned or restricted the actions of Donald Trump. Even Shopify pulled down stores selling his campaign merchandise.

They did what US law had been unable to do: Silence an elected official who’s still serving out his term of office.

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But is the responsibility theirs?

Incongruent values. It’s futile at this point to try to see this in terms of binary right or wrong actions. We don’t have the requisite principles, and often we conflate speech with digital participation.

You might argue that these companies are private spaces, private platforms, private communities, and therefore they have the right (and responsibility) to decide how to manage those.

But society often finds it hard to reconcile these two ideas: 1) Free speech is generally valuable, and 2) in the digital space, it is created and amplified on private platforms. Interestingly, the same people who stand for free speech are often the same ones who’ve cheered on its withdrawal by the tech companies. Legal restrictions on speech exist in countries such as the Philippines and Singapore, but these are often packaged as politically expedient libel, anti-fake news, or sedition laws.

Legal frameworks. So whose responsibility is it to silence an elected official? That’s a public responsibility and not that of the tech CEOs, as Germany’s Angela Merkel pointed out. Free speech rights “can be interfered with, but by law and within the framework defined by the legislature—not according to a corporate decision,” declared her spokesperson.

If those laws don’t currently exist, or have been outsourced to the private tech domain, you can bet that every single head of government is now thinking about how to prevent tech companies from dropping them.

In solving a uniquely American problem (poor regulation of massive, wealthy tech giants plus limitless free speech), these companies have now created a problem for every single government out there, namely: How do I, as a head of government, stop any of these American companies from silencing me?

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You can expect plenty of regulations coming. This new status quo won’t be acceptable. And as citizens, we should be concerned.

Consider the sheer power of technology companies to restrict both access and speech. Sure, I love that Trump’s hate isn’t all over Twitter and Facebook now; in fact, both platforms should have acted on this years ago when the Trump fascists started to brew. But this collective containment of speech has vast implications in a tech-enabled world.

Someday, when you’re being “deplatformed,” you wouldn’t be able to enter your smart-locked home, start your driver-authenticated car, order groceries, or make payments. Something to think about. No one wants to be deplatformed.

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Alan Soon is a co-founder at Splice Media, a Singapore-based media startup that trains, funds, and transforms newsrooms.

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TAGS: Alan Soon, Commentary, regulating technology
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