By Neera Kuckreja Sohoni
On June 15, the Anti-trust regulator in the UK announced it has opened a year-long probe into Google’s and Apple’s mobile ecosystems (iOS and Android) suspecting a possible stifling of competition.
Tik Tok is being sued by a Parents Group in the Netherlands for illegally accessing data on their children and compromising their privacy and safety. The UK similarly is suing the company over the use of data on millions of children.
India’s National Commission for Protection of Child Rights has sought a report from Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, and Telegram regarding posts on these sites offering illegal adoption of children tragically orphaned from the Corona pandemic. A Parliamentary Committee has asked Twitter to appear before it to discuss safeguarding of citizens’ rights and prevention of misuse of social media platforms.
Across the world, with misuse of social networking sites posing a threat not only to individual but also to national security, social media behemoths are at last facing extra scrutiny for everything ranging from mergers, acquisitions and monopoly behavior, to privacy and free speech infringement.
While other countries are recognizing and taking legal steps to counter the threat, the US has been slow to take off. Some experts and legislators here have questioned whether these social media platforms are fulfilling their obligation as neutral digital public forums. Among them, liberals have expressed concern these sites are not doing enough to counter violent or false speech, while conservatives have argued that the platforms are unfairly restricting and banning public access to potentially valuable conservative speech.
Existing federal law does not offer recourse for users seeking to challenge a social media provider’s decision about whether and how to present a user’s content. Legal challenges to these sites remain largely unsuccessful absent federal law provisions that can make these private companies accountable for violating free speech.
Claims against social media companies are anyway barred by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which provides immunity to social media providers, both for decisions to host content created by others, and for actions taken “voluntarily” and “in good faith” to restrict access to “objectionable” material. Those fine but ambiguous terms provide enough elbow room to the companies to act freely, even irresponsibly.
But unrest among users is growing with liberals complaining not enough is done to exclude harmful incendiary and hate content posted by conservatives, and the latter protesting the bias against conservatives of the almost wholly liberal Silicon Valley controlled media platforms that work against Republican Party and favor Democrats.
Trump, who had often spoken against Section 230, did issue an executive order directing the executive branch to ask independent rule-making agencies whether new regulations could be placed on the social media companies. But that symbolic order meant little, with Trump’s own access to the Twitter and Facebook platforms ironically getting blocked!
That these bans are more political than principled is clear from Facebook’s recently announced decision to ensure Trump stays barred until slightly beyond the midterm elections at which point the company will revisit the ban’s extension. Only a fool would believe it will not be extended once again to prevent Trump from using his powerful internet potential to dislodge Biden. Hardly innocent, Facebook’s and Twitter’s actions clearly are a favor to Biden and Democrats.
While as Biden supporters we may welcome that outcome, regardless of our party affiliation, we should be horrified at the stranglehold placed by social media mandarins on public discourse and behavior. The selective use of banning in favor of one person, party, or cause is not only despicable but scary. That such unrestrained power of censorship can impact not only our politics and elections, but also destroy vital other sectors of our life such as public health, education, religious pursuit, and the economy, as was clearly demonstrated in the wake of the Corona pandemic, makes the threat to each of us personal.
As pressure intensifies for making these companies liable not only for third-party content posted on the platform but also for their biased interference with and manipulation of speech, it has finally provoked some Congressional action. Twitter and Facebook have been questioned in several Congressional committee hearings over their impartiality and excessive power to restrict free speech, and their ability to monopolize public discourse and commerce. Republican Senator Josh Hawley introduced a bill last June that would eliminate the Section 230 immunity unless tech companies submitted to an external audit certifying that their content moderation practices were politically neutral. But further progress is stalled on that and other legislative ventures due to difficulty in finding cross-party support.
Lobbyists meanwhile have aggressively sought to derail any attempt to legislate reform and placed a stranglehold on lawmakers by the corrupting power of money. Elected representatives and even bureaucrats in America in many cases depend directly or indirectly on the financial backing, charity, and goodwill of those powerful social media companies. If you dare to cross the imaginary and ambiguous red line they have arbitrarily set, you get cancelled, de-platformed, and de-funded.
India’s challenge to the mighty Social Media Empire Raj has accelerated with Twitter losing the coveted “safe harbor” immunity over its failure to appoint statutory officers on the company’s roll in line with the new IT rules.
At state level luckily, Florida’s Governor and legislative leaders have announced they intend to set new requirements for social media companies, including clearing the way for lawsuits and financial penalties against platforms that violate the requirements. The Texas Attorney General’s request to Twitter to explain their content guidelines is another example of state initiatives aimed at restraining social media platforms gaining momentum.
The discourse around Corona as we all noticed was and is heavily controlled, with the media platforms suspending or banning contrarian views on anything to do with Corona’s origins, diagnosis, therapeutics, and mitigation. By arbitrarily censoring whatever clashed with the versions advocated by the official infectious disease bureaucracy and scientists, they abused public trust. Worse, they likely colluded with the bureaucracy and the scientists to perpetuate one-sided discourse, as seen in the recently revealed email exchanges between National Institutes of Health’s Dr. Fauci and Facebook’s Zuckerberg.
After 18 months of highly manipulated information dissemination on Corona, as the Wuhan origin of the virus theory is becoming plausible, and some treatment therapies that were outlawed by the media companies as “Trump-speak” are beginning to be accepted as beneficial, there is ground not merely for recrimination but also monetary compensation for the socio-economic damages caused to the global community from excessive use of discretionary power and abuse of authority by the media.
Biden’s appointment of Lina Khan, who has been a fierce critic of Big Tech’s market monopoly, to head the Federal Trade Commission is a promising development. But her impact is likely to be more on market fairness than on challenging suppression of free speech. The same possibly is true of the multi-bill legislation introduced on June 10 2021 in the US House, which if passed would be the most daring Congressional venture to curtail the power of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google over online commerce, information, and entertainment.
In contrast, India’s challenge to the mighty Social Media Empire Raj has accelerated with Twitter losing the coveted “safe harbor” immunity over its failure to appoint statutory officers on the company’s roll in line with the new IT rules. Its top executives, including the country managing director, could face police questioning and criminal liability under Indian Penal Code over ‘unlawful’ and ‘inflammatory’ content posted on the platform by any user.
One can imagine Google, YouTube, Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram etcetera facing a similar fate.
Based in California, the published author contributes opeds and essays regularly to The South Asian Times.