The permanent suspension of President Donald Trump’s favourite megaphone, his Twitter account, was bound to cause quite a stir, especially after Facebook had decided to boot the US president from its platforms “indefinitely”.
While many of Trump’s critics have applauded the decision, his social media eviction has done nothing but heighten the debate about Silicon Valley’s far-reaching editorial judgement, and how the way these platforms manage user content should be regulated, if at all.
Although far from being a Trump supporter, Angela Merkel sits among public figures such as Russian dissident Alexei Navalny and French finance minister Bruno Le Maire, all of whom have come to criticise the move to ban the outgoing president from Twitter and Facebook; an action Merkel sees as a “problematic” breach of the “fundamental right to free speech”.
According to the German chancellor’s office, such a restriction should only be imposed “within a framework defined by the legislator” and “not by the decision of the management of social media platforms”.
This view on regulation, which favours government intervention to force tech giants to remove illegal content versus leaving them to police their own sites, is predominant among European Union members, but isn’t as widely shared across the pond, although this might be changing.
In Britain, where communications regulator Ofcom is set to be given powers to investigate social media companies under the Online Harms Bill to be debated this year, health secretary Matt Hancock has taken a more subtle stance.
During an interview with Sophy Ridge on Sunday on Sky News, the UK government official and former culture secretary said that the decision to block Donald Trump’s accounts “does lead to very interesting questions about the role of social media companies in the editorial decisions that they take”.
But Silicon Valley firms have flexed their influential position far beyond social media evictions. Over the weekend, Google and Apple made the decision to suspend the “free speech” social network Parler – a Twitter clone popular among the US president’s far-right supporters – from their app stores, for failing to “appropriately police content posted by users”.
To top it off, Amazon, on whose cloud computing business Parler relied to operate, has stopped hosting the platform after finding it “unable to effectively identify and remove content that encourages or incites violence against others”. Effectively forced off the internet, Parler is now suing the tech giant in response, accusing it of breaking anti-trust laws.
Donald Trump’s reach and influence has been curtailed by the same platforms that helped bring him to the White House in the first place. Now it’s the influence of big tech that hangs on a wire, as calls for regulation gain momentum.