Legislating the Internet is Not a Silver Bullet, it is Potentially Dangerous

July 20, 2017

The influence and proliferation of extremist content, hate speech and state sponsored propaganda on the Internet has risen around the globe as demonstrated by Russia’s involvement in the U.S. election and the rise of ISIS recruitment online. As a result, the pressure governments, media and civil society are placing on technology companies such as Facebook, Twitter and Google to take meaningful action to stem the flow of this content is at an all-time high.

The German government passed a law today requiring social media companies to remove illegal, racist or slanderous content within 24 hours or face fines as large as $57 million. While governments have a legitimate interest in ensuring the safety of their citizens, laws like this are not the answer. Government legislation is a blunt tool that is likely to compound problems in this space, not solve them.

Legislation or regulations dictating removal of content poses a range of risks including:

1. Legitimizing repressive measures of authoritarian regimes. Hate speech, political propaganda and extremist content are subjective terms that will be subject to widely varying interpretations by different governments. Relying on governments to create and enforce regulations in this space affords them the opportunity to define these terms as they see fit. The German law increases the likelihood that authoritarian regimes, without the liberal democratic tradition of Germany, will feel justified in criminalizing content critical of those governments online and, ultimately, create another mechanism for oppressing their own citizens.

2.  Unfairly limiting the right to free speech. There are varying degrees of freedom when it comes to an individual’s right to self-expression that are wholly dependent on geography. The Internet has provided an unprecedented means for users to share ideas and connect in a manner that supersedes borders. This freedom is not unrestricted – there are valid reasons why certain content, such as child pornography, should have no place on the web. However, the German law risks pushing social platforms into an over-restrictive position. When there are potentially hefty fines, it is all but certain that some companies will err on the side of censorship. Government-prompted censorship would impose barriers and cannibalize the freedoms the Internet was designed to provide.

3. Outsourcing state responsibilities to private companies. The approach taken by the German law places the primary burden of determining and enforcing the legality of content online onto private companies that host Internet platforms. Under this model, these will be forced to adopt a quasi-judicial function. This is problematic because the rules by which the platforms may use to exercise this function may lack the clarity, protections, and appellate procedures that the rule of law requires.

Instead of government intervention we should recognize and build upon the efforts of platforms that address these issues while also pressing companies to step up to do even more. Recent affirmative examples of company-led initiatives include Facebook’s hiring 3,000 more content reviewers to address violent posts on its site and Google’s development of machine learning systems to identify and remove hate speech and extremist content. YouTube also has implemented a policy whereby violent content that does not meet the company’s community guidelines for removal will be stripped of engagement tools such as like, share and auto queue. 

No doubt these companies can, and should, do more. But the future of an open Internet and free flow of ideas depends on the restraint of governments and resistance to the idea that they should be dictating content. As an alternative, governments and companies should look to use the multi-stakeholder model that has helped the Internet grow and prosper. In that context, companies like Facebook, Google Twitter and Microsoft have an opportunity to work with each other more closely, but also with civil society organizations, governments and academics. Together they need to develop scalable and transparent internal governance structures that will enable them to continue making healthy profits while mitigating the damage being done by violent extremist groups, or foreign governments who are using the Internet to spread false information and political propaganda that distorts the democratic foundations of our society.


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