U.S. tech giants influencing freedom of expression

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Billions of people across the globe express themselves and post information on the internet every day in a seemingly unlimited torrent of utterances. But who should decide the rules of the road and the balance between freedom of expression and limitations placed on it? Democratic countries around the world continue to explore these issues in search of answers. Currently, though, the IT giants are firmly in control of the reins.

A researcher at a leading U.S. pharmaceutical company who lives in Florida recalled a recent experience in which Twitter had abruptly suspended his account.

The researcher felt that the death count due to COVID-19 in the United States was too high, and he had tweeted his doubts several times, wondering about the methods used to classify the cause of death. Such tweets were judged by Twitter, Inc. to be false information.

Twitter has a policy regarding misleading COVID-19 information and says that content likely to cause serious harm to society will be removed. Severe or repeated violations of the policy can lead to permanent suspension of a user’s account.

The researcher’s tweets were deemed to have violated the policy. However, he was not convinced.

“They want to dictate what’s being disseminated,” he said.

Ian Lux, 30, was banned from posting anything on Facebook for one week in March after the graduate student in Montana posted stereotypical jokes about Irish people. The content was considered problematic.

Lux said it was only a joke. “I mean it really isn’t anything like too hateful,” he said.

Posting unsubstantiated information and making racist comments are thoughtless acts.

However, imagine a scenario in which one day a person’s means of transmitting information were to be blocked all of a sudden and without detailed reason for doing so. What recourse would that person have? What if that became the norm? There are fears that the situation could devolve into censorship like that seen in authoritarian states.

The only difference is that the primary entities censoring people are private enterprises. The difficult judgment as to whether posted information is right or wrong is in the hands of the IT giants.

In January, Twitter suspended then U.S. President Donald Trump’s account because he had repeatedly posted remarks that were deemed as inciting violence.

The suspension brought into stark relief the reality that an IT giant has absolute power on its platform over the words of a superpower’s leader.

Moreover, the criteria for making judgments are a black box.

The number of posts on Twitter is said to reach as many as 6,000 per second, or 500 million per day across the globe.

Who sorts through such a massive amount of data in search of harmful information and how?

Such tasks are believed to be performed mostly by AI, but the details have not been made public. Free speech is a core tenet of democracy. But the world’s IT giants are growing ever larger, with scant recognition of their grave social responsibility.

Facebook, Inc. Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg said during a congressional hearing held in March, “Now, many people are concerned that platforms can ban elected leaders. I am too.”

The social media titan went on to say, “I don’t think that private companies should make so many decisions like this alone,” calling for Congress to set new rules.

It is unusual to see a business maven calling for further regulation.

We have reached the point at which the weight of responsibility is overwhelming even the enormously powerful IT giants.