For Silicon Valley, 2018 was defined by one impossible question: should there be limits to free speech on the internet? The first amendment is hardwired into the (American) CEOs of the big three social media sites: Twitter, YouTube and Facebook. Each platform grew its user-base with a “words can never hurt me” attitude. Back in 2012, Twitter defined itself as the “free speech wing of the free speech party”; Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has defended his users’ right to be wrong – even for Holocaust deniers. For years, social media platforms allowed posts that could arguably inspire real-life violence in the US, Germany and in Myanmar. But now things are changing. It is only recently, after a series of scandals, that these sites are expanding their army of content moderators to decide when the phrase “Free Kashmir” prohibits Indian law, for example, or when the vomit emoji is used to incite hatred against Muslims.
These companies have their headquarters in a country that is typically proud of its first amendment, protecting even offensive speech. In a recent poll of 38 countries, the Pew Research Center found that US citizens were the most supportive of free speech, with 71 per cent agreeing with the statement “it is very important that people can say what they want without state/ government censorship in our country”. In Europe, support for that statement was 65 per cent; while in the Middle East and Africa, fewer than half of people agreed. But the ubiquity of social media is making other countries reconsider their own attitudes. In the UK, for example, expectations of free speech are becoming Americanised as a result of the internet. The ‘Free Tommy Robinson’ campaign was, rightly or wrongly, framed as a free speech issue with his supporters calling for Brits to be allowed to say whatever they want, however offensive it might be.
This is new here. Unlike Americans, Europeans have long accepted restrictions to speech. Under UK law (Article 10 of the Human Rights Act 1998), “everyone has the right to freedom of expression” but this freedom may be subject to “restrictions” as are “necessary in a democratic society”.
After WWII, France and Germany also adopted an attitude that unabridged speech was not necessarily a democratic right and that allowing mud-slinging at minorities was not freedom of expression. While Holocaust denial is easy to find across the internet, in France and Germany – and, indeed, in many countries in Europe – to deny the Holocaust remains a criminal offence.
It’s this clash of the internet’s American values with European ones that has led Germany to introduce strict social media regulation; its ‘NetzDG’ law obliges Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to take down illegal content, fake news and hate speech. The internet is changing our expectations of free speech, but Britain remains confused about which model it actually wants. Boris Johnson’s column in the Daily Telegraph in November called for a free speech campaign, but the same article admitted that some online comments he received under his writing were “so unflattering they had to be removed”.
While the free speech debate in Britain draws us closer to an American model, Silicon Valley and its content moderators are moving away from it – making concessions to its free speech ethos to avoid more German style regulation. Until we can reach a global free speech standard, the UK is left to debate: how much do we want to absorb the internet’s most American export?