Freedom and Accountability: A Transatlantic Framework for Moderating Speech Online
Five years ago, regulating social media was a niche discussion in most democracies. Now, there is a global discussion dealing with how, not whether, to regulate online platforms for communication. Lawmakers, journalists, civil society, and academics have criticized internet companies, and especially social media companies, for enabling the spread of disinformation, hate speech, election interference, cyber-bullying, disease, terrorism, extremism, polarization, and a litany of other ills. The scope of these potential harms is vast, ranging from political speech to content that may be harmful but not illegal to manifestly illegal content.
Many governments have passed laws or launched initiatives to react to these problems. Democratic governments have for a long time legitimately regulated illegal content. In many ways, this was easier before the internet, as print and broadcast media were often centralized entities that exercised editorial control. The online world, where a massive amount of speech is generated by users rather than their website hosts, presents additional new challenges, not only from the content, but also from its algorithmically directed reach. Current government initiatives, however well-meaning, sometimes use frameworks from the broadcast and print era to deal with user-generated content. This approach, while understandable, can risk curbing free speech even as governments strive to protect it.