A new Venezuelan law clamping down on social media and broadcast organizations demonstrates in extreme fashion the dangers of government regulation of online content.
Approved Nov. 8 by Venezuela’s Constituent Assembly, the law attempts to silence opponents of President Nicolas Maduro by imposing draconian punishments for spreading “hatred” via social media or broadcast. It bans messages transmitted via radio, television, or social media that provoke hatred or violence. The measure requires operators of social media sites such as Facebook or Twitter to remove hateful posts immediately, with potential punishments of 10 to 20 years in prison for those who violate the law. Media outlets that refuse to disseminate government statements against hate and intolerance face fines equivalent to 4% of their annual gross revenue.
Revealing its true motivation, the law also targets political parties that promote “fascism, intolerance, or national hate.” It prohibits such parties from registering with the national electoral council.
In a recent report, the NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights argued that government attempts to control online content create the danger of official censorship of dissent, as well as self-censorship by Internet platforms seeking to avoid fines or other punishments. That danger becomes obvious in countries like China and Iran, which have restricted or banned major social media and search engines. Now Venezuela joins the ranks of nations that stymie free speech to muffle criticism of government.
Our report, “Harmful Content: The Role of Internet Platform Companies in Fighting Terrorist Incitement and Politically Motivated Disinformation,” notes that the danger of government overreaching extends beyond countries that lack functioning democratic institutions. European governments are moving toward greater regulation of the Internet. Under a law that went into effect in October, Germany now requires Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms to remove “hate speech” within 24 hours after it is flagged by a user. Companies that fail to comply face fines as high as 50 million euros.
The German provision puts an enormous burden on the tech companies, creating an incentive for them to err on the side of taking down excessive amounts of content in an effort to avoid stiff monetary sanctions.
Alarmed by Russian online interference in the 2016 election, lawmakers in the United States have also been talking about imposing new regulation on social media and search companies. Generally speaking, this is a bad idea—for the same reasons the German law is unfortunate. Government regulation is likely to be too blunt an instrument when seeking to limit harmful content, be it politically motivated disinformation or terrorist incitement.
The risks online are real. If government intervention raises dangers of its own, someone else must act. We contend in our report that primary responsibility falls on the Internet companies. This isn’t a responsibility to replace the state or act as an organ of government. Nor do we argue that the online platforms should be open to new forms of liability in court. Rather, it is a responsibility consistent with their stated commitment to uphold human rights and contribute to the good of society.
The report offers an array of recommendations for company self-improvement, including enhancing governance, refining algorithms, increasing human oversight, reforming advertising models, and advancing industry-wide cooperation. Fulfilling this agenda may not forestall government overreaching in Venezuela, where a despotic leader has crushed democratic values. But vigorous pursuit of our recommendations, could help shape the behavior of governments in the United States, Europe, and other parts of the world.