The decision to bar the US president from the most powerful communication platforms of the age has all the ingredients of a singularly American brawl.
There is Donald Trump’s exploitation of a powerful strand of nativist populism to try to stay in power and the highly partisan rightwing media that have helped fan the election-rigging conspiracy theory that led to last week’s insurrection in the Capitol.
In the background, a long-running aversion to internet regulation has left a regulatory vacuum. And, this being the US, everyone involved claims an undying dedication to free speech and the First Amendment.
But the other defining theme has been the technocratic self-confidence and thinly veiled self-interest of a powerful group of tech executives, who all run American companies but whose decisions have global implications.
As Mr Trump’s indefinite ban took effect on Facebook, Twitter and other sites this week, the decision to de-platform the democratically elected president has exposed as never before the contradictions at the heart of social media.
The platforms “are having a crisis of legitimacy”, says one tech industry insider of their attempts to justify their decisions. “As long as Mark [Zuckerberg, Facebook CEO], Jack [Dorsey, Twitter CEO], Sundar [Pichai, Google CEO] or Susan [Wojcicki, YouTube CEO] can arbitrarily decide who can appear on their company’s services and what they are permitted to say, people will not be satisfied that these decisions are in the public interest, rather than corporate commercial interests.”
The backlash from both Mr Trump’s supporters and opponents of the tech companies’ power has forced even some executives to sound regretful. Mr Dorsey opined on his own company’s site that blocking powerful politicians like this “sets a precedent I feel is dangerous: the power an individual or corporation has over a part of the global public conversation”.
Such public soul-searching, however, comes alongside signs that some executives still reject the role their companies’ services have played in the US political drama.
Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, declared in an interview this week that the social network had been scarcely used to help organise the riot at the Capitol — a statement that flew in the face of many documented cases of co-ordination carried out on the service.
“The assault on the Capitol was a horrible week for Big Tech because it raised their prominence, it raised their visibility — not simply as commercial institutions, but as political institutions,” says William Kovacic, a former FTC chairman and a current law professor at George Washington University.
“It has put the spotlight on the sector in the most unwelcome way and demonstrated for both left and right reasons to be concerned . . . with over-reach and power.”
Scrutinising Big Tech
Just over two months ago, as American voters went to the polls, things seemed very different. Despite the continued spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories on their networks, the social media companies looked to have tiptoed successfully through the minefield of the presidential campaign, avoiding the charges of foreign interference that blighted the 2016 election.
But the post-election period — and Mr Trump’s full-on denial of the results — has been another matter. Speaking to the Financial Times last September, Nick Clegg, the former British politician and now head of global affairs at Facebook, said the company was prepared to take drastic action to defend the integrity of the election: “There are some break-glass options available to us if there really is an extremely chaotic and, worse still, violent set of circumstances.”
For much of the tech industry that moment of reckoning came last week, when false claims about a stolen election, seeded and stoked by Mr Trump, led a mob to take over the US Capitol. Facebook shut down the president’s accounts indefinitely to prevent what it claimed was further incitement to violence; Twitter did so permanently.
The actions spread much more widely through the tech world, as Google’s YouTube, Snap and payment company Stripe were among those to act against the Trump campaign. Amazon, Apple and Google also took steps to force rightwing network Parler off the internet over fears it was fomenting violence.
The impression this has left of co-ordinated action across the tech sector has added to the scrutiny. “The fact that they ‘broke the glass’ by blocking Trump’s ability to communicate on their services has, if anything, placed greater pressure on these companies to demonstrate the legitimacy of their decisions,” says the insider.
The showdown with the White House comes at a politically charged moment, given that lawmakers in Washington were already working on ways to challenge tech’s power. Inevitably, this has fed simmering debates on everything from tougher laws on speech to ending the tech platforms’ legal protections and whether they should be broken up.
To critics outside the US, the riot in Washington and curtailing of Mr Trump’s tweets have been taken as a sign that the country’s civic discourse has gone off the rails — as well as evidence that the tech companies have grown too powerful. German chancellor Angela Merkel said this week that the US should take a lesson from Germany and pass stricter laws against hate speech, pre-empting private companies from overreaching into the realm of censorship.
Such ideas are widely dismissed in the US, where First Amendment rights are jealously guarded. “I think the European approach is of only limited relevance to the US,” says Richard Hasen, a professor of law at the University of California, Irvine.
Anupam Chander, a professor in global internet regulation at Georgetown University, adds: “It is problematic to have Jack Dorsey decide whether Donald Trump stays or goes, but it may be more problematic to have federal judges do so.”
Yet the Trump ban has still added to the urgency of calls in the US to limit the power of the tech companies to make what can often seem like arbitrary judgments about digital speech, with sweeping effects on millions of users.
One focus is on antitrust. Greater competition in social media would give people more choices over the kind of online conversation they want to join, while also reducing the impact of being “de-platformed” by them. The federal government has already taken the first steps to challenge Big Tech in courts in areas such as Facebook’s ownership of Instagram and WhatsApp.
Applying the blunt instrument of antitrust policy to the marketplace of ideas might not result in better civic discourse, however. Splitting the online discussion between partisan platforms might lead to a fracturing of public debate and reinforce the tribal nature of today’s partisan politics.
Fringe sites that hope to put fewer restrictions on the kind of speech they host may also find it hard to establish a place on the internet — as Parler discovered when Amazon Web Services refused to host its site. Apple and Google had already moved to eject it from their mobile app stores — a severe punishment in today’s duopolistic smartphone world.
In the absence of more competition, the debate has come to focus on what steps the tech companies could take to engender public confidence in their content policies — and what level of regulatory arm-twisting is required to make them live up their promises.
One improvement, according to many observers, would be a clearer delineation of the rules that the platforms apply to policing speech, along with more consistent enforcement.
“These platforms, if they’re going to retain the size and power, have to have a regular way in which they are accountable, and be open and public about the decisions they made,” says Emily Bell, a professor at Columbia University journalism school.
Consistency will never be easy. Regulation of language is inherently subjective. Having turned a blind eye to the repeated use of exactly the same language for weeks, it was only when election denial turned to violence at the heart of US government that the tech companies acted.
“Offline harm as a result of online speech is demonstrably real, and what drives our policy and enforcement above all,” Mr Dorsey tweeted in explanation. But the timing of this change of heart — which came at the dawn of a Democrat-controlled Washington — fed suspicions that the companies had been motivated at least as much by political expediency.
A second, related step would be to bring more transparency to the effects of the tech companies’ content decisions. After the 2016 election, Facebook promised to release more data to academic researchers to allow a wider understanding of the effects of its actions. But the programme has been slow to take hold, with the company claiming to be held back by concerns about protecting user privacy.
Europe’s proposed digital services act, meanwhile, attempts to impose similar checks on internet companies judged to have the power of gatekeepers. They would have to audit their algorithms and content moderation decisions to show whether they risked bias or other harms.
Another idea that has gained wider support would involve external oversight of the companies’ most controversial decisions. Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny took up the idea this week, calling on Twitter to “create some sort of a committee that can make such decisions”. He added: “We need to . . . understand how it works, how its members vote and how we can appeal against their decisions.”
Facebook has already moved in this direction, setting up an independent Oversight Board last year to review a limited number of appeals against the company’s decisions to censor content. However, it would not disclose whether the board would consider an appeal on Mr Trump’s ban, saying “we are not commenting further to avoid prejudicing the review process”.
Meanwhile, sceptics point to its very limited powers. The board “arguably is a start”, says Ms Bell. “[But] it’s so painfully slow and incredibly limited in scope that it is very hard to interpret it as anything other than a public relations exercise.”
Amid the furore caused by the Trump ban, it is unclear whether the tech companies will move any faster on issues such as policy inconsistency and enforcement.
Government action to force the companies to act may already be on the cards. The EU’s digital services act would require big tech companies to do more to combat hate speech. But Brussels also wants them to reinforce free speech, setting up a tension between the two objectives that may be hard to resolve. Two years of negotiations lie ahead before the proposals make it into law.
In the US, meanwhile, politicians from both parties have argued for limiting the legal protections that online companies enjoy under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. The debate has divided politicians on the left, who want tech companies to do more to remove harmful content, and right, who want to limit their room for action.
There is no guarantee that more regulation will stem the tide of online hate speech and conspiracy-mongering. It may also entrench big platforms with the resources to operate in a more regulated world. But after last week’s stark demonstration of tech company power over political speech, it just got one step closer.
“Twitter’s in a no-win situation,” says Eric Goldman, a professor at Santa Clara University law school. “They’ll never be able to earn the trust of the entire world, because the world is going to want different things.”