Trump offline. The Big Tech firms in the US have denied President Trump access to their platforms. And immediately, of course, there were all kinds of reactions. Are these firms allowed to deny private individuals, and perhaps especially a President, access to their platforms? Answer: yes they may, at least in the US. They are private companies and it is up to them to decide who they will and will not allow access. Chancellor Merkel of Germany, however, reacted sparingly. With a number of other politicians , such as Macron, she believes that Big Tech should not be allowed to impede free speech. The regulation of Big Tech should not and cannot be done by the Big Tech companies themselves, but must be done by governments and the judiciary.
Big Tech in action. But the problem is that for many years now, governments have not done anything to regulate Big Tech, that Big Tech has many times indicated that they agree with clear regulations in this area, and that finally and perhaps against their own will, Big Tech is now forced by the facts to do something about inflammatory and misleading messages from numerous groups. Firstly, because their customers want them to, but also because they obviously do not want to be accused of helping to plunge their country into chaos.
What kind of business is a platform ? That’s the primary problem. Social media companies fall between two classic groups in terms of type of business. On the one hand, they can be considered as telecommunication companies, which are also not responsible for the content of messages. But on the other hand, they can be regarded as media companies, such as newspapers, which do have a responsibility for the content of what is published. It is therefore at present completely unclear which rules or standards these companies have to comply with, or which ethical standards apply to them.
Telecom or media company? According to current US law (Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996), these types of platforms are not liable for the content of what is published on their platforms. But this law is under pressure and will certainly be changed under the new President Biden. The European Commission is also working on legislation (such as the Digital Services Act and the Digital Marketing Act) to make platforms more responsible for the content of messages. So also to ban inflammatory, racist and malicious messages. But shouldn’t these governments work together on this common problem?
World in transition. Indeed, there is another problem. The world is in the transition phase from a classic industrial society to a digital society. The Big Tech are all operating entirely from the new paradigm of a borderless, digital world. But today’s society is still a world cut up into nation-states. However, as long as politicians still think they can solve these problems from the classical nation-state paradigm, there is precisely no solution possible. The current nation-state is the major obstacle on the road to a digital society. The nation-state will have to evolve into a nation-state 2.0 that fits into and is part of a digital, globalized world. Big Tech operates on a global scale. It is completely impossible for Twitter, WhatsApp, Facebook, to have different rules for 180 countries. After all, what is allowed in one country is completely not allowed in another one. Here two concepts of how the world should be governed collide.
A fluid society. Governments will have to come to terms with the fact that one digital fluid society is emerging, which can only function well with unambiguous global regulations, which are uniform and valid in all countries. Marietje Schaake, Stanford University & President at The Cyberpeace Institute and former member of the European Parliament, also wrote important notes about this. In a podcast titled: “Defending Democracy in the Digital World” she clarifies her views on the role of governments in the digital world. But governments, first of all, do not understand that the world is in transition to a different form. And secondly, given the current political situation, are very reluctant to cooperate globally. Although Biden, we’ll have to wait and see, will probably be more willing than Trump to cooperate, at least with Europe.
Governments need to solve this together. It is completely wrong for politicians to accuse Big Tech of anything regarding whether or not to ban messages from their platforms. At the moment, the responsibility lies entirely with governments to come up with clear, fair and transparent regulations for Big Tech, which we should actually regard as the digital utilities of the digital society. So that citizens can be safeguarded from racist, inflammatory or criminal messages, but still have their freedom of expression and data privacy guaranteed. It would be to the credit of the European Commission, given its most progressive work in this area to date, if it were to take the initiative in regulating Big Tech, the new digital utilities, on a global scale.