If politicians around the world have their way, it won’t be the owner of the company deciding what can be said on the platform but state social media censors.
This week Elon Musk bought Twitter for $US44 billion ($62 billion). Depending on the day-to-day fluctuations of Tesla’s share price, the world’s richest person, the 50-year old Musk, is worth at least $US200 billion.
The purchase of Twitter by the self-described “free speech absolutist” has raised the hopes of the political right that the social media censorship of the liberal/progressive-leaning big tech companies might be redressed, while the biggest fear of the left is that Donald Trump will get his Twitter account back.
But as interesting as speculation about the future of Twitter is, if politicians around the world have their way, it won’t be Elon Musk as the owner of the company deciding what can be said on Twitter, it will be government censors. Already the European Union’s Commissioner for the Internal Market has warned Musk he must comply with the EU’s regulations against “hate speech” and “misinformation”.
Musk’s hopes for Twitter as a “digital town square” of argument and debate will most likely come to nothing as he’s been forced to acknowledge that, of course, he will have to operate “within the bounds of the law”.
“Organising the digital space” is just a euphemism for government censorship of free speech.
Twitter and Facebook banning Donald Trump from their platforms as they did was not good for democracy, but at least they were decisions made by the companies themselves. In what passes for a free society, companies ultimately must be able to make such judgments without political intimidation.
It’s about control
But the government forcing Twitter or Facebook to ban Trump under threat of a criminal sanction if they don’t is an entirely different proposition – it would be a very profound threat indeed to democracy.
Yet, the power to censor the internet and control not just “hate” speech but speech they declare is “harmful” is what politicians in Europe, the United States and in Australia want for themselves.
On March 21 this year, as the Canberra media bubble was focused on the coming federal election and not paying much attention to anything else, Communications Minister Paul Fletcher announced the Morrison government “will introduce legislation this year [presuming it won the election] to combat harmful disinformation and misinformation online”.
In broad terms, Fletcher proposed that the federal government, through the Australian Communications and Media Authority, would censor and regulate the communication and dissemination of material and opinion on social media deemed “disinformation” or “misinformation” or “harmful” if it posed a threat to “democratic political and policymaking processes” or to “public goods such as the protection of citizens’ health, protection of marginalised or vulnerable groups, public safety and security or the environment”.
That is a breathtaking range of issues that could be censored. And it’s remarkable that Fletcher’s announcement has received very little publicity – possibly because Labor supports the proposals and wants to go even further.
Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act now operates to censor speech offensive or insulting about a person’s race. What Fletcher is advocating is an all-purpose, universal equivalent to section 18C to censor speech about almost anything controversial.
In 2011, at the behest of the Greens, the Gillard Labor government set up the Finkelstein media inquiry that recommended a government-controlled “News Media Council” to censor the coverage of news and current affairs. In the inquiry’s own words, this was necessary as “a free press can cause harm”. After a public outcry, including opposition from the Coalition, the Labor government abandoned efforts to implement Finkelstein’s recommendations.
In essence, Fletcher’s plan to basically end freedom of speech in Australia is no different from what Labor tried to do and failed. Something that began more than 10 years ago as a Greens’ thought bubble is now the policy of the left-wing of the Liberal Party.
It is ironic that Scott Morrison is defending the right of the Liberals’ election candidate Katherine Deves to give an opinion about transgender children playing sport because apparently Australians are “sick of walking on eggshells”. However, if Paul Fletcher gets his way, Deves would be banned from social media and Morrison’s defence of her would probably be censored.
Some people might say that’s a good thing – but hopefully more would say it isn’t.