Digital Politics is a column about the global intersection of technology and the world of politics.
LONDON — Tech companies cannot be held responsible for what people post online — that’s the argument deployed by the likes of Facebook, Twitter and Google whenever their services are used to promote terrorist propaganda, hate speech or other digital misinformation.
That’s no longer going to fly.
Regulators from Brussels and Berlin to Washington and elsewhere are now pushing for tech companies to take greater ownership of the reams of content posted on their digital platforms.
It’s time for Silicon Valley’s biggest brands to own up to what’s long been obvious to anybody watching closely: How they run their global empires is inherently political.
The decisions tech companies’ executives and engineers make — however well-intentioned — now shape the way that we interact with our friends, family and, increasingly, our politicians. And to say they have no, or limited, responsibility for what people do on these global digital networks is like saying officials from London, New York or other megacities do not have the duty to police how their citizens act in their bustling metropolises.
“Technology has never been neutral,” said Christian Katzenbach, head of internet policy and governance at the Humboldt Institute for Internet & Society, a think tank in Berlin. “Technology always favors some over others.”
You don’t have to look far for examples.
“In a free society, freedom of speech is essential to political choice, but it’s now being weaponized against us” — Robby Mook, campaign manager for Hillary Clinton
Online fake news spread rapidly during an unending European election cycle this year. Facebook recently admitted that Russian groups bought political ads during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign. And last year, hundreds of thousands of Indonesians took to the streets to protest against Jakarta’s governor after false reports circulated on Facebook that he had criticized the Koran.
It is no wonder, then, that tech companies are coming under increased scrutiny from lawmakers fearful of the oversized influence of such corporate players.
“In a free society, freedom of speech is essential to political choice, but it’s now being weaponized against us,” said Robby Mook, campaign manager for Hillary Clinton’s failed U.S. presidential bid.
The latest knock against Silicon Valley’s attempts to remain above the political fray took place Sunday, when new hate speech rules came into force in Germany, where laws outlawing the promotion of Nazi ideology have long placed stronger limits on freedom of expression than legislation in the U.S. and elsewhere in Europe.
Under the new rules — rushed through ahead of the country’s recent election and likely to face years of legal challenges — German policymakers will be able to fine social media companies up to €50 million (the largest financial penalty of its kind in the Western world) if they do not take down hate speech on their networks within 24 hours after being notified by users.
Facebook, Twitter and Google are scrabbling to respond to these changes, hiring hundreds of new monitors to police people’s online posts and spending big on new technology to automatically strike down content that breaches Germany’s new rules. Much of the hate speech has been targeted at the recent influx of Middle Eastern refugees, according to the country’s officials.
Industry executives say they’re willing to work with politicians on clamping down on online illegal content (a term, admittedly, that means different things to different people). But that the new rules could open Pandora’s Box.
Not only will companies (not governments) be given greater powers to decide what people can post online; the potential financial penalties — even if they’re relatively small by Silicon Valley standards — could create incentives to err on the side of restricting what users can post. In a choice between freedom of expression and million-dollar fines, the hard-nosed bean counters will likely get the last word.
“Legal fixes will be brittle,” said Mook, who argues lawmakers should instead work with tech companies on better ways to flag such material, and not pass legislation that won’t change with the times. “Building a digital Maginot Line won’t help.”
Expect to see an even greater push for tech companies to own up to their role in politics when executives from Facebook, Twitter and Alphabet (Google’s parent company) testify in U.S. congressional hearings in November about Russia’s potential use of their platforms in last year’s presidential election.
European officials also are increasingly asking tough questions about their elections, notably in the United Kingdom, whose own strict restrictions on political advertising have been strained to breaking point when almost anyone can reach an online audience by spending money through the likes of Facebook or Twitter — as happened extensively during last year’s Brexit referendum.
If there’s any question about the power of a communication platform to shape politics and society, you can just ask Johannes Gutenberg.
Almost 600 years ago, Germany — then part of what was known as the Holy Roman Empire — was home to the inventor of the printing press, which did as much to spread political ideas across the Continent as Mark Zuckerberg’s social network does now for its roughly two billion people users worldwide (although at rather slower rate and with fewer emojis).
“In many ways, these companies are now more powerful than governments. They’re changing the way we think about politics” — Victoria Nash, University of Oxford
Gutenberg’s invention jumpstarted the ideas that led to the Age of Enlightenment and mass education for even the poorest of Europeans. It also spurred the 30 Years War and other bitter and bloody conflicts by igniting religious fervor during the Reformation.
Similarly, West Coast companies can’t take credit for a new global era of mass communication without also being responsible for the darker side of technology.
For every Skype call with a grandparent or YouTube video that goes viral, there’s a flood of ISIS propaganda on WhatsApp or Signal, as well as nefarious (mostly unregulated) political ads on social networks paid for by potentially hostile foreign actors.
“In many ways, these companies are now more powerful than governments,” said Victoria Nash, deputy director of the Oxford Internet Institute at the University of Oxford. “They’re changing the way we think about politics.”
Mark Scott is chief technology correspondent at POLITICO.