Tuesday 19 January 2021 6:00 am

What next for social media regulation in the post-Trump world?

Jessica Lovell is a media lawyer at Slateford Law

Two weeks on from the storming of the US Capitol the social media excision of the 45th US President is so extensive, the holder of the most powerful office in the world is presently unable to log in to Pinterest to create a mood board for his impending house move.

His exclusion has drawn condemnation from advocates as unlikely as Angela Merkel and French finance minister Bruno Le Maire, hardly MAGA cap wearers.

These critics hit on the difficult truth that political content on social media is almost impossible to regulate.

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On one hand, as Merkel and others point out, having the limits of political speech decided by policies and judgements of private companies and whoever happens to own them is at least “problematic”.

On the other, the policies the social networks apply cannot be regulated by governments either. If politicians are prepared to say things so outrageous social networks feel they must be deleted, it’s fair to assume those same politicians are likely to be willing to amend regulations in retaliation.

This is the circular lock that will bog down the debate on regulating political speech online for years.

It seems to be no coincidence that the strong actions against Trump and his assault on democracy only came after President Elect Biden was confirmed by the joint session in the US Capitol (you may not need to guess how content has been treated from countries that don’t choose a new leader every four years).

Why? The answer looks to be because the social networks want to avoid that risk of retaliation; most likely change to the beloved 1996 Federal legislation that protects them from liability for any content they host in the US.

The very sentence highlights the nonsense of how poorly the world has legislated for the rise of social media: the US is judging Snapchat against law designed to protect Geocities from copyright claims at the time Bill Clinton started his second term.

The effect of that protection is what dictates the attitude of social media companies throughout the world: if they are immune at home in the US then why not elsewhere?

For starters because other countries have not dealt with responsibility for content in the same way.  you could just as easily highlight that some of the law we still use to govern the internet in the UK originates from 17th century attempts to stop people killing each other duelling for honour, but the application of data protection law to internet companies in Europe has been a significant and valuable change.  

While contemplating regulation around political speech may be hard the priority for governments now must be to avoid it being cited as a get out of jail card for social networks to avoid being regulated at all. The truth is that the argument around other harmful content is easy.

Social networks are rife with bitcoin scams, hate speech and vile content encouraging self-harm. The multi-billion dollar businesses running the social networks know this: it is reported to them, they know it’s there and they know it keeps being posted again. Yet they still act against it lethargically and reluctantly, if at all.

If you ever need to get a teenager off a device at speed you quickly see how effectively tech companies have innovated to encourage one more click and to keep eyes on screen.

If they approached innovation to protect users from harmful content half as enthusiastically many problems could be avoided.

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City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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