The storming of the Capitol is a failure for Twitter and Facebook

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SvD Näringsliv

This analysis was first published in SvD Näringsliv, in Swedish, on January 11th, 2021.

The fact that Twitter and Facebook closed down Donald Trump’s accounts doesn’t only reveal how arbitrarily their own policies are enforced – it also shows the failure of politicians in regulating them.

With two weeks left of Donald Trump’s presidency, what critics have constantly asked for over the past four years finally happened: his accounts on Facebook, Twitter and a number of other social networks were shut down. The companies justified their actions in a similar way – that Trump’s remarks threaten a peaceful and democratic transition of power in the United States to Joe Biden.

These are historical decisions. But they also reflect the lawless country that the tech companies are in, and what a difficult balancing act they have ahead of them.

In the absence of regulation and clear laws, tech companies have had to develop their own policies. The actions over the last few days, however, have shown how they are stumbling in the dark, seeking the public’s approval of how to deal with these issues in a consistent manner in the future. Just look at Twitter, where the threats of what could happen to Trump’s private account, which had about 90 million followers, often seemed to change with public opinion.

The tech companies have had many years to clarify their rules so that everyone, including Donald Trump, understands what applies. They could have shown that breaking the rules earlier has consequences. But while companies have worked on their internal rules and regulations, they have at the same time allowed disinformation and conspiracy theories to receive millions of views – completely unchallenged. It is a late awakening that is happening.

For example, Reddit shut down a notorious forum where Trump’s supporters discussed the alleged election fraud. Apple’s App Store and Google Play shut down the right-wing network Parler, which has been around since 2018, because they did not moderate the discussions in their app well enough. But in order to gain credibility in these matters, it is of course also important to first take care of your own issues. Youtube, owned by Google, is responsible for millions of views of conspiracy theories. Here, the company has so far chosen not to act.

This is therefore a situation that the tech companies have largely put themselves in. And it is urgent to find sustainable solutions. The alternative is for politicians, who should no longer be able to close their eyes after the storming of the Capitol, to do so for them. That would probably not be to Silicon Valley’s advantage – the politicians’ competence in these matters has historically proved to be lacking.

Because even if the problems culminate now, they are not new. Politicians have neglected their responsibility to regulate these companies for more than ten years.

So far, much of the discussion in the US has been about Section 230, which regulates the responsibility of tech companies for what is said on their platforms. Trump just got his first veto, in which he tried to get the legal protection revoked, overruled by the Senate.

The politicians, however, could have done a lot that does not concern this particular law. They could have been more forward-looking. They could have blocked new acquisitions that reduce competitiveness. They could have legislated on data ownership so that consumers could easily switch to new digital services. This would have enabled new companies to start and become competitive without having to start from scratch.

Instead, much in the US and the EU has been about lawsuits over events that have already occurred, such as anti-trust. But the same politicians who now question this particular concentration of power, were the same ones who approved Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram and Whatsapp. They approved Google’s purchase of Youtube, Nest, and most recently Fitbit. The biggest policy reform on the European level – GDPR – has been accused of being toothless and lacking the resources to be effective. As a consumer, you notice it mainly through more pop-ups on the web.

In Sweden, we follow the EU agenda to a large extent. But there is room for national initiatives here too, even if they have so far been largely absent. Denmark, for example, has its own tech ambassador whose mission it is to create better relations with the tech companies and understand Silicon Valley to a greater extent. There is nothing similar in Sweden, but when the expertise is lacking with politicians, maybe it could be something to look at? During the Christmas weekend, we learned that our own Prime Minister never even shopped online. Before we get elected officials who prioritize – or even use – technology, we are unlikely to be at the forefront of these issues.

There is therefore a great risk that the lawless country – in which politicians neither understand nor are able to legislate tech companies in a clear way – is allowed to continue to grow almost unhindered, and where faltering tech companies will have to try to develop and enforce their policies.

Left, squeezed between tech companies and politics, are we – the consumers. The ones who see the surreal pictures from Washington DC on Facebook or Instagram. Without many of us even reflecting on how the two things are connected.

This analysis was first published in SvD Näringsliv, in Swedish, on January 11th, 2021.

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