We all want to feel safe as we move through our lives – and we want our loved ones to be safe too. But right now, a handful of billionaires are putting their profits before our online safety.
Social media companies are some of the most important places for us to connect to each other and interact with our democratic processes. That makes them different to other companies. They’ve pervaded our lives to such a degree that they are the new public realms, where news and ideas are exchanged, friendships formed, and political movements rise and fall.
They are also places where behaviours that are outlawed in the real world happen all the time – from hate speech to electoral disinformation to the channelling of dark money into politics.
The consequences of this for society are huge. Election results are doubted, society is becoming more polarised, and radicalisation is rampant.And so the news last week that one of the most influential social media companies, Twitter, is now owned and controlled by a single person, the world’s richest man Elon Musk, is alarming.
One of his first actions was to fire half of the workforce including employees charged with protecting the midterm elections, members of a team handling verification of politicians’ accounts and the entire ethical AI and human rights teams. None of that bodes well.
Mr Musk says that he’s protecting the content moderation team. But the point is that, outside of the EU, he can pretty much do what he likes with the platform. Something so important to our democracies as social media companies should not be under the control of single person who is free to do what they want with the platform.
It’s not just Twitter where there are big changes underway. Meta announced they were laying off 11,000 people yesterday – likely the first time that the company has ever reduced the number of people working there. It’s not yet clear which teams will be most affected, but what is clear is that Meta has failed to detect content that blatantly breaches their own rules in investigation after investigation (after investigation) that we have conducted.
It doesn’t have to be this way. What’s needed are laws to hold the online platforms to account and to create a level playing field. This is totally within the power of our governments to do. The Big Tech companies are not too big to be made to change, and change does not rely on significant numbers of us having to stop using the digital products these companies provide.
The European Union is showing the world how to do this.
As Commissioner Thierry Breton quipped in response to Musk’s claims he had freed the bird of Twitter; ‘In Europe, the bird will fly by our EU rules.’
The Digital Services Act enters into force later this month and heralds a new era for tech accountability, navigating carefully between protecting people’s free speech and tackling illegal content, rights abuses and social harms. All online platforms with more than 45 million users across the Union, which includes Twitter and Facebook, will be required to assess and mitigate the risk that they spread hate and disinformation that affect our fundamental rights. Such platforms will also be subject to independent annual audits to verify how they fulfil these requirements.
Now is the time for the rest of the world to step up and regulate these companies.
Rosie SharpeSenior Campaigner, Digital Threats