The “de-platforming” of US President Donald Trump has sparked a debate in the US that could reshape the internet.
Following the storming of the Capitol by his supporters last week Trump has been banned permanently by Twitter and indefinitely by Facebook.
As Trump and his supporters tried to migrate to Parler, a small social network that boasts its lack of regulation, its apps were removed from Apple and Google app stores and Amazon announced it would eject it from its web-hosting service. With Apple and Google providing the operating systems for almost all smartphones, Parler, if it survives, faces a much-diminished future.
The actions of the social media giants were an understandable response to the pressure from Democrat and Republican politicians and the broader communities in the US to avoid any repeat of their perceived role in facilitating the inciting and organising of the assault on the Capitol building.
However, that backlash against the companies isn’t universal as Trump, his family, supporters and some lawmakers are characterising their actions as an assault on free speech.
Speech on the big platforms has never been entirely free (leaving aside the monetisation of their users’ content), with a range of terms and conditions and ad hoc regulation of some content – paedophilia, terrorism, extreme violence and the like – on most of the bigger platforms.
However, thanks to a 1996 law, it has been far freer on the platforms than it is in the general community, where various laws restrict the speech of individuals and make conventional publishers and broadcasters responsible and liable for the content they carry.
That law, Section 230 of the US Communications Decency Act, absolves digital platforms from liability for the content posted by their users as long as the platforms aren’t aware of any crime being committed – which has served as a deterrent to the platforms moderating their content.
Section 230 has been described as “the 26 words that created the internet” because it enabled the explosive growth of not just the social media giants such as Facebook and Twitter but a host of social networks and digital businesses powered by user content and interactions. Think Amazon, Airbnb, Tripadvisor, Uber and Menulog, among a myriad of others, in which user reviews play a central role.
Trump and some Republicans have long urged that the section be repealed, seeing the tech giants as anti-conservative, while some Democrats – including Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi – have also urged Congress to revise the law to remove hate speech, extremism, and politically inspired falsehoods.
There is real irony that the actions and words of Trump in the dying days of his presidency may damage the platforms that played such a pivotal role in elevating him to prominence and power.
The events last week have increased the likelihood that Section 230 will either be revised to make them more accountable for their content, or repealed.
Neither would be good news for the platforms, although even Mark Zuckerberg has conceded that new regulation is needed to address harmful content, protect election integrity and privacy and facilitate user data portability.
Any reform would replace the discretions the platforms have to decide whether and how to moderate the content on their sites with law and regulation; self-regulation (to the extent the platforms do self-regulate) would be replaced with external regulation.
That could change the nature of the companies and the internet more broadly.
If companies were held responsible for their users’ content they would also be liable - like any traditional publisher.
They would have to hire armies of lawyers, moderators and fact checkers to pre-screen any content before it was posted in the knowledge that otherwise they would face a blizzard of litigation.
Costs would soar, their usability and the network effects that have powered their remarkable growth would be severely diminished. No one wants their tweet or Facebook post to be published days after it was written.
Platforms such as Parler, reliant on extremist communities, would wither while a Twitter might survive but would be shrunk by the more limited and genteel interactions between its users.
Some would argue that curtailing the growth and power of Big Tech would be no bad thing. Indeed governments around the world are grappling with a host of different aspects of the way the platforms operate, including their use of consumers’ data, the tactical use of their algorithms, the treatment of competitors and third parties on e-commerce platforms and their impact on traditional media.
In the US anti-trust actions are being taken against Facebook and Google, in Europe there is a move to make the platforms liable for their content and to ban certain anti-competitive behaviours and here, of course, there are actions to force the social media giants to pay traditional media for their content. Outside the US there is also the issue of how much tax big tech companies pay, or don’t pay.
There is real irony – some might say poetic justice – that the actions and words of Trump and his supporters in the dying days of his presidency may curtail and damage the growth and value of the platforms that played such a pivotal role in elevating him to prominence and power.
That is, however, only one element of the backlash against the scale and power of the tech giants that until now have had all power and very little responsibility.