LONDON — EU and British officials have raised new questions on the regulation of Big Tech after some major social media platforms banned the accounts of President Donald Trump.
These firms have faced intense scrutiny over the past few years, with some policymakers wary of their role on the political process. One of the key questions is whether these companies should be treated as publishers rather than tech firms — meaning they would be more accountable for the content available on their platforms.
The Capitol Hill riot last week resurrected that debate, with some tech giants either banning or imposing restrictions on the accounts of the outgoing president.
Well before Wednesday's invasion of the U.S. Capitol, the issue had emerged in the United States with some lawmakers and Trump calling for killing Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which blocks liability claims against social media companies for users' posts on their sites. Section 230 was seen as a protection of free speech.
According to the U.K.'s Health Secretary Matt Hancock, formerly the culture secretary, these moves show that tech giants are "taking editorial decisions" that raise a "very big question" about how social media is regulated.
"That's clear because they're choosing who should and shouldn't have a voice on their platform," Hancock told the BBC on Sunday.
Thierry Breton, the European Union's commissioner for the internal market, said in a Politico opinion piece on Sunday: "The fact that a CEO can pull the plug on POTUS's loudspeaker without any checks and balances is perplexing. It is not only confirmation of the power of these platforms, but it also displays deep weaknesses in the way our society is organized in the digital space."
Publishers, such as newspapers, are allowed certain freedoms but also follow laws and codes in the U.K. and the European Union. As a result, they can be taken to court or forced to issue corrections if they publish discriminatory or libelous content.
The EU has taken a leading role when it comes to regulating these tech giants. There have been different investigations and fines related to how powerful these companies have become, as well as new legislation to address their powers.
In 2018, the EU implemented the General Data Protection Regulation which has given users a stronger say over their data. However, the EU has bigger ambitions. It has a new plan that could lead to heftier fines and stronger controls over how Big Tech operates.
"Our European laws and courts will continue to define what is illegal, both offline and online — from child pornography to terrorist content, from hate speech to counterfeiting, from incitement to violence to defamation — through democratic processes and with appropriate checks and balances," Breton added.
"But currently, online platforms lack legal clarity about how they should treat illegal content on their networks. This leaves our societies with too many questions about when content should or shouldn't be blocked," he added.
However, one of the issues in regulating tech is the lack of an international approach. U.S. officials have taken longer to discuss and address the implications of Big Tech in comparison with some of the work done in the European Union.
As the Biden administration takes over next week, the EU hopes it will be able to work with the U.S.
"The challenges faced by our societies and democracies are global in nature. That is why the EU and the new U.S. administration should join forces, as allies of the free world, to start a constructive dialogue leading to globally coherent principles," Breton said.
Twitter said in a statement Friday that "after close review of recent Tweets from the @realDonaldTrump account and the context around them … we have permanently suspended the account due to the risk of further incitement of violence."
Facebook's CEO Mark Zuckerberg said Thursday: "The risks of allowing the President to continue to use our service during this period are simply too great. Therefore, we are extending the block we have placed on his Facebook and Instagram accounts indefinitely and for at least the next two weeks until the peaceful transition of power is complete."