This week United States Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida) sent a letter to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey following a previous exchange between the law maker and the social media platform at the beginning of last December. At the time Sen. Rubio requested an explanation for the company’s failure to remove or at least label a falsified image posted by a member of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Rubio said he had found it disturbing that Twitter refused to answer basic moderation procedures, and since then the micro-blog service has suspended the account of President Donald Trump as well as many of his supporters for reportedly spreading false information.
In his follow-up letter, sent on Tuesday, Jan. 19, Sen. Rubio asked directly, “Please provide documentation clearly detailing the steps for Twitter’s process of evaluating user-generated content, from the circumstances that give rise to a review to how the company determines whether to remove, flag, or intentionally limit specific content’s reach.”
Rubio added, “I inquired whether Twitter plans to operate in China in the future, and if the company has had any conversations with relevant officials or entities in China. This question was not answered in your company’s December 23 response letter.”
The U.S. Senator also took it a step further and suggested, “The absence of any reply to this question strongly implies that Chinese market access is a motivating factor in how Twitter handles content generated by Chinese Government and Chinese Communist Party officials.”
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Was Rubio Out Of Bounds?
Rubio’s letter to Twitter is notable for a number of reasons. The first is the question of exactly what role the U.S. government should play – if any – in policing either content moderation policies or moreover online speech in general; but also how an Internet platform such as Twitter should moderate or otherwise control the content posted by its users.
In the case of the former issue that has been seen by experts as a very black and white issue.
“The government has, and should have, zero role in policing online content or the platforms that carry it,” explained Steve Blum, president of Tellus Venture Associates, a management and business development consultancy specializing in developing new community broadband systems, and serving the digital media and telecommunications industries.
“It’s no different than a printing press: prior restraint is forbidden in all but the most extraordinary circumstances. Prior restraint is always forbidden when political speech is involved, extreme or not,” added Blum.
“Not least because ‘extreme’ is always in the eye of the beholder,” Blum noted. “Ted Cruz might want particular speech suppressed or promulgated, but there will be people on the other side who disagree. As he would disagree with the content moderation wishes of his political opponents.”
The issue of course is the one of content moderation, and here the issue may be shades of gray rather than black and white.
“(Twitter CEO) Jack Dorsey is playing catch-up when it comes to content moderation. Originally, he proclaimed Twitter to be ‘the free speech wing of the free speech party,’ as it should be,” said Blum. “He’s resisted complex content moderation policies and tried to maintain an open platform, to the extent possible. Which is the problem now. It’s not possible, in this political environment, for a publicly traded company to be the free speech wing of the free speech party. So he’s trying to adapt, and in doing so is guaranteed to upset someone, no matter what he does.”
But another aspect of this is whether Sen. Rubio actually expects that Twitter would change its policies?
“They don’t even have a policy,” suggested technology industry consultant Lon Safko, author of The Social Media Bible. “They don’t need to write out a policy to deliberately block all conservative [language] at this crucial time! Rubio sending this letter to Dorsey is like sending a letter to someone who committed a felony asking them how they committed the crime before they are arrested in hope of getting a confession.”
Moreover, there is the issue of the size of the Chinese market today.
“Of course Dorsey wants Twitter in China,” added Safko. “Look at the potential market, which is 1.44 billion. Even a small market share of that is huge! But the question is, does China want Twitter in there?”
A final issue is even with content moderation, where is – or should – the line drawn? To some, banning some individuals from the ability to have a voice is being done in the very name of free speech. The question is whether that is the correct thing to do, and where it ends.
As has been seen in the recent wave of “cancel culture,” anything that offends can be deemed “hate speech” and opponents say silencing it is done in the name of protecting people.
“The ultimate danger is not from extremists, but from those who seek to control basic rights and liberties in the name of protecting us from extremists,” said Blum. “As Benjamin Franklin – a man not well regarded by the government he helped to bring down said, ‘those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.'”