Two developments over the past week have conspired to highlight the polarized debate over free speech and government regulation of social media. Last Saturday, the European Union reached a final agreement on its Digital Services Act, which will hold major social media platforms operating in the bloc accountable for removing illegal content and misinformation. And on Monday, Twitter struck a deal with Elon Musk, a self-proclaimed “free speech absolutist,” to buy the publicly traded platform and take it private.
The EU legislation responds to growing popular unease about social media’s unintended effects on everything from political polarization to geopolitical competition, not to mention its potentially harmful impact on users, especially young people. A decade ago, social media was celebrated for the role it played in facilitating Arab uprisings in the Middle East. But repressive governments quickly found ways to limit its disruptive power in the hands of dissidents and even reclaim it for their own uses.
As the role of Russian disinformation campaigns in influencing elections in the United States, Europe and elsewhere has become clearer over the past six years, the social media debate has shifted dramatically, concern growing in Western capitals in the face of its dangerous implications for national security. Social media platforms’ control over vast amounts of user data has drawn increasing fire from privacy advocates. The use of social media to incite mass violence has drawn criticism from human rights activists. And the dissemination of illegal content, as well as the use of social media platforms to enable criminal activity, have long been at the center of campaigns to regulate it.
But these efforts have also consistently fueled concerns about how to balance regulation with free speech rights, demands by authoritarian governments for social media platforms to remove content they deem objectionable. are often used as cautionary examples. Technically speaking, social media platforms are private sector entities, whereas constitutionally guaranteed free speech rights only apply to governments. But as social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook have grown to hegemonic status, the argument that they represent public squares in which any regulation amounts to government violation of speech has gained momentum. magnitude. Twitter and Facebook’s decisions to delete or suspend President Donald Trump’s accounts following the Jan. 6 Capitol uprising crystallized these debates.
Musk takes an even more extreme interpretation, that even some aspects of Twitter’s terms of service represent unacceptable limits on free speech, and he has promised to remove them if his purchase goes through. This has raised alarm bells among users who say these terms of service are already failing to curb the harassment, hate speech and misinformation that continue to saturate the platform.
Here are some recent articles from WPR to provide context to the debate over tensions between free speech and social media regulation:
This week’s highlights
Macron must now reconstitute France. During a briefing on Monday, I took stock of the French political landscape in the aftermath of President Emmanuel Macron’s re-election last Sunday for a second five-year term.
- Macron’s re-election represented a dodged bullet for observers in Brussels, European capitals, Washington and of course Paris. The implications of a Marine Le Pen victory for Europe – and, therefore, for the West’s standoff with Russia – had made the contest into a global election in a way usually reserved for the US presidential ballot. . But if Macron’s victory, in which he obtained 58.5% of the vote, represents a decisive victory, it is an inglorious victory. When abstentions and spoiled ballots are taken into account, he was re-elected with just 38.5% of the vote.
- Perhaps acknowledging this fact, Macron pledged in his victory speech to pursue a new direction and style of government in his second term. He is expected to lean left – possibly including appointing a left-leaning prime minister – to balance the rightward shift of his first term. But while Macron is likely to retain his parliamentary majority in the June legislative elections, that is not guaranteed. If his LREM party fails to win a majority, he could be forced to govern with a prime minister opposed to his national agenda. And even if he gets a majority, it could prove difficult to manage, given the lack of coherence and cohesion of his broad coalition.
- Macron is expected to continue to focus on the EU as a solution rather than the source of France’s problems – a force multiplier for France’s ability to meet the challenges it faces at home. her and abroad. He is likely to double down on his support for European strategic autonomy, or the EU’s ability to defend and advance its interests militarily independently of the United States, despite the obstacles he is certain to face from from Washington and even within the EU.
- But Macron’s most pressing priorities remain at home, where he must find a way to reconcile the antagonisms that currently divide France into multiple, overlapping binary oppositions. To succeed, he must not only act, but produce results, not only for his own political base of support, but also for those who have expressed – whether by voting or abstaining – their lack of confidence in the political system. . If he fails, he will leave behind not only a political void, but also a potentially existential threat to French democratic institutions.
Israel’s spyware industry will survive the NSO Pegasus scandal. And during a Tuesday briefing, Chuck Freilich explained why Israeli cyber companies like the NSO Group are likely to continue to play a major role in the country’s economy and its cyber diplomacy.
- Israel’s cyber sector came under increased scrutiny last year, when a handful of Israeli cyber companies were accused of selling highly sophisticated spyware to authoritarian regimes. The NSO Group, in particular, has become the focus of an international investigative consortium which has discovered that nearly 200 journalists, dissidents, human rights activists and political leaders in 21 countries may have been targeted. to be monitored using NSO’s Pegasus spyware.
- As Chuck notes, Israel’s economy is the most tech-dependent in the world, with the most high-tech startups per capita and the most investment as a percentage of GDP in high-tech R&D and venture capital. In 2020, just under a third of global cyber investments were in Israel. Israel’s cybersecurity sector has also been a remarkable engine of economic growth, part of a high-tech ecosystem based on a symbiotic relationship between the government, defense establishment, academia and commercial sectors.
- Cyber exports, including surveillance tools, have also become an important component of Israel’s foreign relations. Its “cyberdiplomacy” has forged ties with several states, including a number of regional neighbors such as the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. But last year’s survey of NSO Group customers and their use of its tools put this cyberdiplomacy in a more problematic light. After the scandal broke, the US government put NSO and another Israeli company on a sanctions list, barring them from acquiring US technology.
- But despite all the bad publicity, the Israeli cyber sector continues to thrive, with 2021 and the start of 2022 proving to be banner years. The cybersecurity sector alone, which employs only 1% of Israel’s national workforce, constitutes 10% of total exports and a third of all tech exports. Given its importance to Israel’s economy and security, Chuck concludes, the cybersecurity industry is likely to continue to enjoy strong government patronage.
This week’s most read story
Slovenian elections deal another blow to Europe’s illiberal populists. And in this week’s top story by pageviews, Frida Ghitis looked at the global significance of last Sunday’s elections in Slovenia, where illiberal and populist Prime Minister Janez Jansa lost to a centre-left coalition. in what was billed as a “referendum on democracy”.
It is precisely because Jansa did not dismantle democracy, despite his attacks on the media and the manipulation of state institutions, that the opposition was able to prevail. A lesson to be drawn from this experience is therefore that it is crucial to vigorously challenge undemocratic leaders while democratic institutions, including a free press, are still in place.
And next week we have:
- A column by Erica Gaston on why Russia’s conduct in Ukraine could spur a movement to finally consolidate and enforce international humanitarian law.
- A briefing by Joshua Kurlantzick on the latest worrying signs for Indonesian democracy under President Joko Widodo.
- A briefing from Ali Wyne on what the war in Ukraine means for US China policy.
- And an in-depth article by Ayodeji Rotinwa on recent advances in the campaign to return African artifacts held in Western museums, and the obstacles these efforts still face.
Judah Grunstein is the editor of World Politics Review. You can follow him on Twitter at @Judah_Grunstein.