Congressional Hearings Target Tech Firms: Establishing Freedom of Online Expression and A Reasonable Right To Privacy
Social media and other major tech firms like Facebook, Twitter, and Google have become a target of US officials due to their vast influence over public opinion. While US President Donald Trump, as well as his Conservative cohorts, have lashed out against the likes of Google for allegedly favoring the Left, tech firms have become a focal point for Congressional hearings largely due to the Russian election hacking scandal. What major tech firms have done to curb the undue influence of foreign entities on US public opinion and how they plan to stem the influence of misinformation are important questions that go beyond the political motivations of Congressional hearings. The undue influence of all entities on public opinion and government officials must be addressed. The question for social media firms is how to ensure an open and trustworthy platform that is free of both censorship and deceptive information. As such, public officials should refocus their attention on the broader goal of protecting internet users and their reasonable right to privacy by empowering them.
It is not the responsibility of Facebook or Twitter to protect their users from trolls and spammers. It is something they do to make their platforms more user friendly, but social media companies are not in the business of hiding people from each other. Outside of combating bots that allow spammers to post their messages hundreds of times, it is important to remember the world is full of unsavory characters who will offend or annoy certain people. Simply blocking them and isolating oneself will only help foster the online social bubbles that act as political echo chambers. The people of the world need to be able to freely connect in order to realize the full benefits of the world wide web. Although people do not need to be kept “safe” from the messages of unsavory characters, they do need to know when they are looking at false or misleading information. From government propaganda to product ads, internet users also need to know when someone is trying to coerce them. What the tech firms need to do is focus on transparency, not censorship.
With that in mind, transparency does not mean exposing every detail of a user’s life to the world. It means making it easier to see when other users or their posts are suspected of being spam. It means trusting and empowering internet users to make decisions about the potential harm of disreputable users and their claims. Transparency also means tech firms need to be more transparent about how they filter search results as well as how they flag and block those who violate the terms of their platforms. When someone is flagged, blocked, or “shadow banned,” it impacts those who connect with them, which creates an incentive for all users to distance themselves from anyone who is deemed a troll, spammer, or any other kind of violator of an online community’s rules. In essence, how social media platforms confront unsavory content and users creates a social penalty against those who do not fit in the norms, which can be harmful or constructive.
Social media platforms and other online tools, such as search engines, can set their own rules for the most part as they are products of private concerns, but they must be honest about their products. If they honestly want to facilitate an open internet that fosters the free flow of information and ideas, tech firms will adopt rules for their platforms that afford everyone equal access and protections from others users who try to suppress their views. If they do not, they need to be honest about it. Lawmakers, in turn, need to hold tech firms that are not honest about their products accountable. The credibility of internet infrastructure, which includes social media platforms, search engines, and other online tools, matters. It matters, because access to the information, connections, and opportunities the internet provides has become a key component to living a modern lifestyle. Just as the inability to use public transportation or a phone would financially cripple a person, unfair access to the bounties of the internet does the same.
Because unfettered access to the internet is so crucial to modern life, people need to have their cyber rights protected and respected. Outside of the right to free expression, a reasonable right to privacy is essential. The right to free expression and the reasonable right to privacy are needed to empower individuals. At the center of any right to privacy is consent. Unfortunately, the need for consent can easily run afoul with free expression as the need for consent can force people to ask for the consent of those they wish to post about. Balance is needed. Because the failure to submit to wholesale consent often results in dire consequences, i.e. an online shun, and manual consent on every post about a person is both impractical and stifling, there needs to be balance in order to avoid censorship and coercive consent. For the European Union, the answer has been a right to be forgotten, which undermines transparency. There needs to a balance that gives people control over their personal data without infringing on the free expression of other people and the public interest in transparency.
Election hacking and other efforts to manipulate public perception need to be addressed as part of a broader package of social issues. A free cyberworld and the cyber freedoms of individuals requires a framework that empowers individuals. What information falls under the protections of personal privacy needs to be better defined. Conversely, what information falls under the realm of public domain also needs to be better defined. In the middle, what kinds of information need explicit consent and what kinds of information can be shared under wholesale consent also need to be clarified. There needs to be a framework that establishes consent-driven content sharing, a reasonable right to privacy, and the free flow of information. The United States has had the freedom of speech and expression since its inception, thus the US has a long history of dealing with these kind of issues. The US Congress should, therefore, seize the opportunity to work with tech giants to establish a framework for the rights and protection of internet users around the world.
Read old posts