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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?

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Learn more about how carbon created life on Earth in the second episode of Eni's Story of CO2 series.

On September 23, GZERO Media — in partnership with Microsoft and Eurasia Group — gathered global experts to discuss global recovery from the coronavirus pandemic in a livestream panel. Our panel for the discussion Crisis Response & Recovery: Reimagining while Rebuilding, included:

  • Brad Smith, President, Microsoft
  • Ian Bremmer, President and Founder, Eurasia Group & GZERO Media
  • Jeh Johnson, Partner, Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, LLP and former Secretary of Homeland Security.
  • John Frank, Vice President, UN Affairs at Microsoft
  • Susan Glasser, staff writer and Washington columnist, The New Yorker (moderator)

Special appearances by UN Secretary-General António Guterres, European Central Bank chief Christine Lagarde, and comedian/host Trevor Noah.

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

Can Europe get to the bottom of Russian opposition leader Navalny's poisoning? And if so, would it change anything?

One has got to the bottom of it, to certain extent. The evidence, there was a German laboratory confirming nerve agent, Novichok. They sent it to a French laboratory and the Swedish independent laboratory, they came to the exact same conclusions. I mean, it's dead certain. He was poisoned with an extremely poisonous nerve agent coming from the Russian state laboratories. Now, there is a discussion underway of what to do. I mean, the Russians are refusing any sort of serious discussions about it. Surprise, surprise. And we'll see what actions will be taken. There might be some sort of international investigation within the context of the OPCW, the international organization that is there, to safeguard the integrity of the international treaties to prevent chemical weapons. But we haven't seen the end of this story yet.

Watch as Nicholas Thompson, editor-in-chief of WIRED, explains what's going on in technology news:

Would Facebook actually leave Europe? What's the deal?

The deal is that Europe has told Facebook it can no longer transfer data back and forth between the United States and Europe, because it's not secure from US Intelligence agencies. Facebook has said, "If we can't transfer data back and forth, we can't operate in Europe." My instinct, this will get resolved. There's too much at stake for both sides and there are all kinds of possible compromises.

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Jon Lieber, who leads Eurasia Group's coverage of political and policy developments in Washington, offers insights on the Supreme Court vacancy:

Will Senate Republicans, who stopped a Supreme Court nomination in 2016, because it was too close to an election, pay a political price for the change in tactics this time around?

Not only do I think they won't pay a political price, I think in many cases, they're going to benefit. Changing the balance of power on the Supreme Court has been a career-long quest for many conservatives and many Republicans. And that's why you've seen so many of them fall in line behind the President's nomination before we even know who it is.

At this point, do Senate Democrats have any hope of stopping President Trump from filling the ninth seat on the Supreme Court?

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