The US president wants to make platforms such as Facebook and Twitter liable for content. Regulation is necessary – but this move threatens freedom of expression.
Twitter sent a reconnaissance drone, Donald Trump replied with an atomic bomb. This is how the events of the past few days can be summarized in the war rhetoric of the US President. After Twitter provided one of Trump’s numerous false claims with a fact check, the threat to the company was drastic. That happens regularly, but this time he made the announcement true: shortly afterwards, Trump signed a decree that is long since not only aimed at Twitter. It could change the network as we know it forever.
The subjunctive is important: most likely the bomb won’t explode. Almost all experts agree that Trump’s attempt to rewrite the rules of the Internet will fail. The decree is “simply illegal,” said Democratic Senator Ron Whyden, who worked decisively on the law that Trump is now attacking about 25 years ago.
The so-called Section 230 protects website operators from law enforcement when users post illegal content there. There are only a few exceptions, such as depictions of child abuse or copyright infringements. The law applies to large platforms such as Facebook, Youtube and Twitter, but also to small forums, blogs and other pages with comment columns. The civil rights organization EFF calls it “one of the most important tools to protect freedom of expression and innovation on the Internet”.
“Does something,” Trump is said to have ordered the employees in the White House, whereupon an old draft was brought out and pushed through under great time pressure. This personal vengeance campaign is short-sighted and amateurish, causing enormous damage – and is even criticized by conservative lobby organizations.
Nevertheless: it raises fundamental questions. How much responsibility should social networks have for comments, photos and videos that users put into the world? Are Facebook, Instagram and Tiktok only service providers who only provide one platform? Or should they be treated like media that are liable for content?
The idea that companies like Facebook can be neutral is misleading. First, they are already making millions of decisions a day, matching content against their own community standards, and deleting posts. Second, they sort and weight content according to its supposed relevance. These algorithms are based on hundreds of different signals and should keep users on the platform as long as possible – this is the opposite of neutrality.
There is also a crucial difference between Facebook and newspapers such as SZ: the company lets billions of people create content, publishers produce it themselves. Treating both equally would be disproportionate and would endanger online freedom of expression.
It is important and right to regulate Facebook and Google – the attack on Section 230 is the wrong way to do it. Companies would then have to make even more substantive decisions that should actually be in the hands of the courts. If you want to tame Silicon Valley, you have to use other instruments: Antitrust authorities worldwide investigate and check whether the mega-companies can be regulated or smashed. With Instagram and Whatsapp, Facebook controls a total of three of the world’s most important communication platforms – this is where regulation should start.
Should Trump’s decree succeed against expectations, he would probably be one of the first to suffer from it: His own tweets could be punishable – so that Twitter would be forced not only to supplement the US President’s allegations with fact checks, but also entirely Clear. The company is already rehearsing the uprising: they have a tweet from Trump in which he threatens to fire demonstrators in Minneapolis, provided with a warningbecause he glorifies violence. In the interest of public interest, the tweet should remain online.
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