The fact that Twitter’s decision to ban permanently U.S. President Donald Trump from its platform is being treated almost as consequentially as the actual armed insurrection at the U.S. Capitol highlights a growing awareness of the power of internet platforms and internet infrastructure companies in setting the rules that govern Americans’ lives.
Twitter’s assertiveness — echoed by Apple, Google and Amazon’s decision to ban the right-wing social media app Parler from their respective businesses — is much more than an American story. As global platforms, this newfound willingness to censor problematic speech and problematic actors will almost certainly inform how they conduct their business in the rest of the world.
Watching this debate unfold from outside the U.S. has been an odd experience. It’s a very American debate: American platforms reacting to an attempted coup spurred by the sitting U.S. president, in the context of the particular U.S. legal system and an ideology that treats free speech as a paramount, almost sacred, value. Discussions of what to do about these platforms centre on reforms to U.S. laws, notably Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, as well as U.S. preferences for market-based solutions — such as enforcing anti-trust law — to public-policy problems.
Beyond highlighting the ability of these platforms to regulate online activity (often with offline consequences), Trump’s deplatforming also reveals the extent to which these platforms — as powerful in Canada as anywhere — are uniquely shaped by and respond to American needs and values.
It’s a safe bet that a Donald Trump figure in any other country would not have prompted the all-hands-on-deck, wholesale policy revisions we’ve seen here. The same goes for the platforms’ decision to tackle COVID-19 misinformation: a global crisis that affects directly the people who matter at these platforms. Meanwhile, the United Nations implicated Facebook in an actual genocide in Myanmar without moving the U.S. regulatory needle.
When Canada tried to get Google to follow its election-advertising law in the run-up to the 2019 federal election, Google refused to carry any election advertising at all. Similarly, for all the talk about how unresponsive platforms are to regulation attempts, at least the U.S. Congress can get the heads of these platforms to present in committee hearings. In other countries, including Canada, they don’t even bother to appear.
Because of platforms’ global reach, other countries need to assert their interests in these debates. This can be done in part through stronger regulation that forces platforms to respect local differences. Germany has led the way with its Network Enforcement Act (NetzDG) designed to regulate hate speech; the United Kingdom similarly has committed to legislation to combat “online harms.” Australia has committed to greater regulation of digital platforms and social media, and in Canada, the federal government has proposed some reforms and indicated that more are coming.
But we also need to go deeper. Formal multilateral regulation of global platforms by democratic countries would be a start.
American platforms reacted so strongly to the American coup because they are American companies above all. Platforms need to be made as sensitive to other countries’ needs, laws and values as they are to Americans’.
It may be time to question whether the very model of the global platform — and the outsourcing of ultimate authority to the United States — makes democratic sense. Domestic control of platforms (private or public), and not just domestic regulation, may be necessary to ensure that platforms are more responsive to Canadians’ needs. We need to stop thinking about the internet and platforms as undifferentiated spaces and start thinking about what a federated internet of interoperable democratic sovereign countries might look like.
Global finance provides us with a model and a warning when it comes to platform governance. Twelve years ago, the global financial crisis brought the world economy to its knees. A financial bubble in the U.S. subprime housing market, nurtured by a broken U.S. regulatory system, free-market ideologues, illegal behaviour and good old-fashioned greed, crashed the U.S. economy, and spread around the world.
In 2008, bad regulation in the United States wrecked the global economy. Many millions of people paid the price because U.S. bankers and policymakers had a much higher appetite for risk (and criminal wrong-doing) than those in other countries.
Not all countries were dragged down with the U.S. Those that maintained capital controls on how their financial system interfaced with the rest of the world were largely unaffected. Others, like Canada, similarly were spared the brunt of U.S. incompetence because of a well-regulated financial system characterized by domestic control of our largest financial institutions. If the global financial system consisted of one bank, run according to U.S. rules, Canada would not have fared as well.
In finance, we had the space to implement rules that reflected local conditions and risk tolerances. These rules were designed to ensure Canadian control over a vital sector of the economy. We need to create the same space and control with online platforms and critical internet infrastructure.
Platform governance is too important an issue to be left to the United States alone.