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The internet, free speech and responsibility (1)

In early July 2021, former American president Donald Trumpfiled class action lawsuits against Twitter, Facebook and Google over the censorship of his accounts by the tech giants. Mr Trump wants not only his accounts restored, punitive damages paid to him, but others not be similarly treated in the future.

We could rightly wonder if this newfound desire by Mr Trump to “protect” other social media users was borne out of the goodness of his heart. But should he succeed, there are many who might be quite glad, including those who do not like him very much. This is because “The Donald” would have literally done what even some governments have gone to far greater length to achieve with relatively little effort.

Read Also: Twitter Ban: Understanding the reputational risk to Nigeria

A month before Mr Trump’s class action lawsuits, in June 2021, the Nigerian government banned Twitter. This was after a tweet by President Muhammadu Buhari was deleted by the social media platform, owing to a violation of its rules. Mobile telecommunication firms operating in Nigeria were expressly directed by local regulators to block access to Twitter from their systems.

While many Nigerians have been able to overcome the restrictions using virtual private networks (VPN), it is still unprecedented for a government to implement such sweeping measures over a tweet. Thankfully, there are indications Twitter is negotiating with the Nigerian government towards a resolution.

That said, there is a lot of vitriol on social media. But there is also a lot of good. Unlike traditional media, however, there is as yet sufficient controls. Unfortunately, the internet platforms are complicit. And unless they do more to police their platforms, there would be more lawsuits like Mr Trump’s and more bans like that of Mr Buhari’s administration.

Read Also: Nigeria ready to dialogue with Twitter as Buhari approves team

To my mind, Havard Business School professor Shoshana Zuboff’s 2018 book, “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The fight for a human future at the new frontier of power”, gives perhaps the best exposition on the business model that underpins these internet platforms.

Zuboff shows convincingly how internet platforms have the capacity to better moderate the content generated by their users but prefer not to do so for economic reasons. And quite frankly, there is not much incentive for the platforms to do more. They suffer no liability for harmful posts.

A crucial American law, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, originally aimed at engendering the sector’s innovative streak, might rightly now be considered an enabler of the platforms’ relative laxity. Calls for the law to be modified to reflect current realities are increasingly strident.

And there are advocates for reform on both sides of the aisle of the American legislature. But the big tech lobby has become as formidable as the size of the industry it represents. Even so, there is a consensus now amongst all stakeholders that big tech has to take more responsibility for the actions on its platforms.

It is almost impossible to quantify how much the internet has changed our lives for the better. And probably for the worse too. For citizens and residents of advanced economies, the impact is probably not as profound. But for those of us in poor countries, the internet has been phenomenal.

An overly regulated internet would almost inevitably be a balkanised one, with several open variants for the rich world, and probably many more closed types for the poor. Quite literally, China already has its own internet. But imagine a world where you have as many “internets” as you do countries? That would be miserable, wouldn’t it?

It is almost impossible to quantify how much the internet has changed our lives for the better. And probably for the worse too.

Either way, it is poor countries that stand to lose the most. Ironically, the closing off of the still poor world from the liberal internet may likely emanate not so much from the actions of the rich world, but from reactionary sweeping restrictive measures on the other side, like those implemented by the Nigerian government against Twitter.

To be fair, even the most objectively-minded stakeholders, from individuals, governments, to civil society, are at their wits end about how to ensure not just social media, but the broader internet, does less harm.

In his 2020 book, “Reset: Reclaiming the Internet for Civil Society”, bestselling Canadian author, Ronald Deibert, captures the dilemma rather well.

“Once it was conventional wisdom to assume that digital technologies would enable greater access to information, facilitate collective organizing, and empower civil society (Deibert, 2020).”

“Now, social media are increasingly perceived as contributing to a kind of social sickness. A growing number of people believe that social media have a disproportionate influence over important social and political decisions (Deibert, 2020).”

“As a consequence of this growing unease, there are calls to regulate social media and to encourage company executives to be better stewards of their platforms, respect privacy, and acknowledge the role of human rights (Deibert, 2020).”

Even so, any potential solution must ensure the liberal ethos of the internet is preserved, free speech is not suppressed, while ensuring that everyone, from individuals, firms to governments, can be held accountable for their online actions.

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