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?

This time last year, world health experts were speculating about why Africa appeared to have escaped the worst of the global pandemic. Younger populations? Natural immunity created by exposure to past viruses? Something else?

They can stop wondering. Africa is now in the grip of a COVID emergency.

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Listen: Stanford historian Niall Ferguson joins Ian Bremmer on the GZERO World podcast to talk about the geopolitics of disaster. Throughout human history we seem to be unable to adequately prepare for catastrophes (natural or human-caused) before they strike. Why is that? And as we emerge from the greatest calamity of our lifetimes in the COVID-19 pandemic and look to the plethora of crises that climate change has and will cause, what can we do to lessen the blow?

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Get insights on the latest news in US politics from Jon Lieber, head of Eurasia Group's coverage of political and policy developments in Washington:

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi barred two Republican members from serving on the Jan. 6 commission. What's going on?

Well, the Jan. 6 commission was designed to be a bipartisan commission, taking input from members from Democrats and Republicans. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy had the opportunity to make recommendations but the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, could always veto those recommendations. In this case, she did, saying no to two members, Jim Banks and Jim Jordan, both of whom are strongly aligned with President Trump and who voted against certifying the election results in 2020. The Republicans for the most part see the Jan. 6 commission as an opportunity to score political points against them, and the Democrats say this is going to be a fair, non-biased, and nonpartisan investigation into what happened on Jan. 6, starting with a hearing next week with some of the police officers who were involved in the battle with the protesters inside the Capitol.

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In his New York Times op-ed, David Brooks says the US is facing an identity crisis — protecting liberal and progressive values at home while doing little to stop autocrats elsewhere. But has the US really abandoned its values abroad just because it's withdrawing from Afghanistan? Ian Bremmer and Eurasia Group analyst Charles Dunst take out the Red Pen to argue that the US can advance democracy without being the world's sheriff.

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When the Tokyo Olympics begin on Friday, Japan watchers will be following more than just the performance of Japan's star athletes, including tennis star Naomi Osaka. They will also be tracking the political fortunes of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who is taking a big gamble by staging the event — amid a raging pandemic — in the face of strong and longstanding opposition from the Japanese public. What are the stakes for Suga, particularly with elections on the horizon? Eurasia Group senior analyst Ali Wyne explains.

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YouTube pulls Bolsonaro's rants: Google-owned YouTube pulled down a series of videos on the channel of Brazil's populist President Jair Bolsonaro, accusing him of spreading misinformation about the pandemic. YouTube removed more than a dozen clips for touting quack cures for coronavirus or claiming, in defiance of scientific experts, that masks don't reduce COVID transmissions. Last year, Twitter and Facebook also removed some content from Bolsonaro's feeds for similar reasons. But critics say that YouTube's move is too little too late, because Bolsonaro has been spreading misinformation about COVID since the pandemic began. Many Brazilians hold him personally responsible for the country's abysmal pandemic response, which has led to almost 550,000 deaths, the second worst toll in the world. Will YouTube's move change Bolsonaro's message? His weekly address to the nation, where he converses not only with government ministers but also various conspiracy theorists and loons, is broadcast on YouTube. Surely he doesn't want to risk losing that — or does he?

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Boycotts! Bans! Protests! Drugs! Think you've got gold medal knowledge about politics at the Olympics? Test what you know with this special Tokyo Olympics Quiz. And to stay current on all the latest political stories at the Games and around the world, subscribe here to Signal, our daily newsletter. Now, without further ado, the first question is...

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