Has Free Speech on the Internet Peaked?

Has Free Speech on the Internet Peaked?

America's internet giants are being pulled into political fights right and left these days. Speech – what can be said, and who can say it – is increasingly at the center of those controversies. Consider these two stories from opposite sides of the world:


On Monday, Twitter deleted hundreds of accounts and suspended 200,000 more that it said were part of a "significant state-backed information operation" to undermine the ongoing protests in Hong Kong. Facebook took similar measures against a smaller number of accounts. Such "de-platforming" has happened before with Russian and Iranian trolls, and US conspiracy theorists, but Twitter also went further, saying it would no longer allow state-controlled media organizations to place ads on its platform (The policy change, which came after some Chinese state-controlled news sides took out Twitter ads disparaging Hong Kong protesters, excludes taxpayer-funded and independent news outlets like NPR or the BBC). While Twitter will still allow government news outlets to get their messages out to people who follow them, it'll no longer give them an extra ad boost.

This marks a further change in how the tech industry sees its role in policing propaganda and misinformation on the internet. For years, industry executives tried to argue they had no business serving as referees and that it wasn't their responsibility to decide who should be able to say what online. The decision not just to expose and ban Chinese trolls, but to rein the reach of government-controlled news is a reminder of just how times have changed. From here on out, expect tech companies to take a narrower view of what speech they'll protect.

Similar political pressures are at work in the US, where the Trump administration has apparently been circulating a proposal that could weaken the protections granted to internet companies under the 1996 Communications Decency Act. That law is the reason why a newspaper can be sued for publishing libelous material, but Google can't. It's also why neo-Nazis can't sue Facebook for taking down videos of their marches. Without that law's protections, modern social media might not even exist.

There's growing bipartisan support for changing the law. Many Republicans are convinced (although evidence is scant) that Silicon Valley companies unjustly censor conservative political views, and they want to tweak liability rules to force the industry to treat the Right more fairly. Democrats, for their part, argue that the world's biggest websites aren't taking hate speech and other harmful content seriously enough. Weakening liability protections would force them to do more.

In both cases, as industry and politicians round on social media messages and practices they don't like, it seems increasingly clear that we've passed peak internet free speech. My question for our Signal readers, is: is that a good thing or a bad thing?

Demography is destiny. That ominous-sounding pronouncement, credited to French philosopher Auguste Comte, is today taken to mean that a nation's fate depends on the youthfulness of its population. For a poor country to become rich, it needs lots of young people ready to work, to support those too old or too young to work, and to pay taxes. This is called the "demographic dividend."

That's an important part of China's success story. Over the past 40 years, more than one billion people have emerged from poverty in China. Waves of young people surged from the countryside into cities to work in factories. The state invested in education, and wages helped young workers, and then their children, go to school. The state also began a drive to develop the technologies of the future, by any means necessary. In China, once dirt-poor, hundreds of millions have created a middle class.

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Not everyone thinks that President Biden's decision to pull all US troops out of Afghanistan by 9/11/21 is a good idea. Conservative Congressman Mike Waltz (R-FL), a combat-decorated Green Beret with multiple tours in Afghanistan, thinks that the US still needs to maintain a small presence in the country to avoid incurring "massive risks." In a spirited discussion with Ian Bremmer on GZERO World, Waltz, who served as counterterrorism advisor in the George W. Bush administration, argues, "The next 9/11, the next Pulse Night Club, which is right on the edge of my congressional district, the next San Bernardino, that's now on Biden's watch. He owns it with this decision." Their conversation is featured in the upcoming episode of GZERO World, which airs on US public television starting Friday, April 23. Check local listings.

Vaccines are the best hope to end the COVID-19 pandemic. But rich countries are hogging most of the doses, with more than 83 percent of shots administered to date having gone to residents in high- and upper-middle-income countries. Most poor countries will have to wait years to achieve widespread vaccination, according to one study.

To address this inequity some stakeholders are pushing hard for waivers to intellectual-property (IP) rights through World Trade Organization trade rules so that manufacturers in poorer countries can make their own vaccines locally. India and South Africa have been leading the charge, which would essentially mean that deep-pocketed pharma companies like New York-based Pfizer, for instance, would have to hand over the keys to the kingdom, allowing local companies in New Delhi and Johannesberg to make generic versions of their vaccines.

Unsurprisingly, the debate has gotten fiery, with passionate arguments emerging both for and against.

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Carl Bildt, former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Sweden, shares his perspective on Europe In 60 Seconds:

What are the Russians up to against Ukraine?

We simply don't know, except the fact that they're concentrating a huge amount of military forces. And you don't do that for nothing or for fun. They are there for a purpose, to have pressure or to undertake limited to larger operations. We simply don't know. And when Putin delivered his State of the Union speech the other day, he didn't say a thing about this. They are now talking about withdrawing the forces. But let's wait and see. They have talked about withdrawing forces from Syria for a long time, but we haven't seen that as of yet.

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Australia rips up Belt & Road deal: Australia cancelled two 2018 deals signed between Victoria, Australia's wealthiest state, and the Chinese government, that committed the two sides to working together on initiatives under China's Belt and Road infrastructure development program. Foreign Minister Marise Payne said that the agreements "were adverse to our foreign relations." Similar deals between Victoria and institutions in Iran and Syria were also abandoned by the Australian government this week, under a 2020 law that allows Canberra to nullify international agreements struck at local and state level. (Australian universities say the "foreign veto bill" amounts to "significant overreach.") Meanwhile, Beijing hit back, calling the move "unreasonable and provocative," and accusing Canberra of further stoking divisions after a series of escalatory moves by both sides that have seen China-Australia relations deteriorate to their worst point in decades. Chinese investment in Australia dropped by 62 percent last year, a massive blow for Australia's export-reliant economy.

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50: The US will aim to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent from 2005 levels by the end of the decade. The Biden administration's commitment, double the goal set by Barack Obama almost six years ago, was announced to coincide with a virtual Earth Day climate summit attended by dozens of world leaders.

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Russian president Vladimir Putin on Wednesday threatened an "asymmetrical, rapid, and harsh" response for anyone that dares to cross a "red line" with Russia.

What's the red line? Putin says he'll decide on a case-by-case basis. And the cases at the moment are growing: the US has sanctioned Russia over cyber crimes; Putin critic Alexei Navalny is near death in a Russian prison; the Czechs say Russia blew up a Czech munitions depot; and as many as 120,000 Russian troops are reported to be massing along Russia's border with Eastern Ukraine.

Which is to say: there's potentially a Sol Lewitt's-worth of red lines to ponder now.

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