Tech Regulation In The Aftermath Of The Capitol Riots

President Trump’s ban from social media platforms has highlighted the importance of tech regulation, but it’s still no simple task.

Jan. 15, 2021

Throughout the weekend, giant technology firms took a historic step in suspending the sitting-President Donald Trump from their platforms in the wake of the Capitol riots. The decision to block the outgoing president, alongside a large portion of his fans, due to his alleged incitements to violence in Washington on January 6th has led to demands for content regulation in the social media space. Many critics have condemned the widespread banning and state that the power to erase the voice of a sitting president should not be on the shoulders of private companies. 

Tech regulation and the current law 

There’s a reason why no new regulations have been made or why no lawsuits over the ban have been filed. Despite increased pressure from Trump and legislative hearings on the topic  — the fact remains that as of now, the law is on Big Tech’s side. 

For one, the First Amendment states that the protections of freedom of speech for citizens only apply to government efforts to restrict free speech, not private companies. Furthermore, Section 230 — legislation that provides legal immunity from liability for internet services and users for content posted — also does not protect free speech on platforms either. Instead Section 230 shields businesses from liability for that speech, which indirectly makes it safe for users to speak freely.

One of the authors of Section 230, Senator Ron Wyden, stated:

“Were Twitter to lose the protections I wrote into law, within 24-hours its potential liabilities would be many multiples of its assets and its stock would be worthless.” 

Daphne Keller of the Hoover Institution gave two solutions for content moderation in her 2019 article, ‘Who do you sue?’. Keller said that one option would be for tech companies to host posts that don’t break the law but not to promote posts that are potentially harmful — which essentially would result in the post sinking below the stream of new content on the platform. Another option would be what Keller calls ‘magic APIs’ — which would force companies to open up access to their user generated content and third party companies could launch competing services with new content ranking and removal policies.

What the Trump ban means for tech 

Twitter’s (NYSE: TWTR) permanent suspension of Trump might have come as a shock to many, but it really shouldn’t have. Over the last four years of his presidency, Twitter has given many second chances as they believed that freedom of speech for world leaders was in the public interest. 

Twitter explained their reasoning for suspending Trump in a series of tweets from its @TwitterSafety account that also linked to a longer blog post. The microblogging site explained that it had given the outgoing president another chance by reinstating his account after suspending it on Wednesday. However, the following day, Trump sent two tweets which were apparently what caused the permanent ban. 

Twitter said that these two tweets included further indications of him calling the election a fraud and claims that he encouraged more violence at the inauguration by stating that he will not be attending — which many believed was him saying that the event would be a safe target for future attacks as he will not present. 

Twitter’s explanation of why they banned Trump gave a rare, totally transparent window into how social media companies decide what stays and what goes. Even though Twitter’s stock has suffered slightly due to the decision, the ruling has already been legitimized by tons of other social media companies following suit and suspending Trump’s account. 

Alternative networking sites have really benefited from the Twitter ban as users are surging to the smaller, conservative platforms. On Monday, Parler, a network site that mimics Twitter, became the number one app in Apple’s app store after 210,000 people installed the app. However, since then Parler has been removed from Google’s Play Store, Apple’s App Store, and from Amazon Web Service servers as it did not have sufficient content moderation features.

The bottom line 

Democrats, Republicans, and even the founders of these technology institutions agree that having private companies control what content is allowed on the world’s largest communications platforms is untenable and that better regulation is needed. However, the issue remains that content legislation is no easy task and we should expect many years of debating, policy changes, and regulations on the topic before the matter is resolved.

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