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Debate about Twitter and FacebookMedia company as "Internet police"

Since the violent attack on the Capitol, US internet companies have begun sanctioning Donald Trump and his supporters. First, Facebook had announced that it would block Trump's accounts, including those on Instagram, until the end of his time as US president. Twitter turned what was initially a temporary ban into a permanent one. Trump's profile has so far been in great demand with almost 90 million followers.

Most recently, the short message service deleted more than 70,000 accounts of the Trump-affiliated QAnon movement. Amazon has deleted the online network Parler, which is particularly used by right-wing extremists, from its offer and thus - as a technical host - ensured that the service is offline. Google and Apple had previously banned Parler from their app stores.

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Debate about dealing with networks

In particular, the deletion of Trump's Twitter profile has since sparked a debate about the rights of social network operators. Chancellor Angela Merkel criticized the move with reference to freedom of expression.

The media scientist Bernhard Pörksen generally welcomed the move from Twitter. However, an alternative must be found to the fact that “company owners on the northern edge of Silicon Valley” could influence the flow of information for billions of people, he said on Deutschlandfunk. His proposal: platform councils to regulate monopolists such as Twitter and Facebook.

The blocking of Donald Trump's Twitter account was correct and long overdue. But one also has to think about how to regulate these platforms, because they have developed into superpowerful institutions, says Poerksen. Blogger and journalist Sascha Lobo made a similar statement. He calls for the criteria for the relevant steps to be defined more precisely and in a democratic process.

Internet lawyer: We have a problem

For the internet lawyer Matthias Kettemann, who examined the community standards on Facebook for the Hamburg Leibniz Institute for Media Research / Hans Bredow Institute (HBI), the current discussion shows "that we have a big problem here". On the one hand, the platforms are required to set up their own rules and these rules have to be discussed, said Kettemann in the Dlf program Mediasres.

But now it has to be a question of "what tasks the states have". In the past, citizens were not adequately protected with regard to the platforms, criticized Kettemann. The example of the "Oversight Board" recently introduced on Facebook will show whether a platform council "can have teeth at all".

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The blocking of Donald Trump's Twitter account was correct and long overdue, said Poerksen in the Dlf. But one also has to think about how to regulate these platforms.

Bettina Köster: Are media companies allowed to become internet police?

Matthias Kettemann: Media companies are already acting as internet police. The large social networks, which function a bit differently from classic media in terms of logic, have long established rules according to which they moderate content, according to which they reinforce some content and present other content less strongly. Now it has come to that we are talking about these rules. And that is very important and right, should have taken place much earlier.

Köster: The business rules, i.e. what you just mentioned, have been violated for a long time. Were the self-interests of the network employees in the foreground?

Chain man: Exactly! Twitter could have ruled Trump out much earlier. So far, they have only tagged his tweets, but that was because the risk was too great for them so far. Facebook, Twitter and the rest of the world have already kicked a large number of politicians from the platform, for example in India, Uganda or Brazil, and excluded important political actors. But they didn't talk about it that much, it was a very low risk for the companies. And to this day it has been a very big risk for companies to position themselves against Trump, against the American right. Now this risk has become small. In ten days he will no longer have power, so Facebook and Twitter, but also Amazon and Shopify and other American companies, Twitch and Snapshat, could now, as in the domino effect, dismiss Trump from the platform, it was no longer a high risk for them. And that already shows us the problem: in ten days he will no longer have power, but companies will still be very powerful in ten days. And the fact that these decisions can be made overnight without a big debate going on shows that we have a big problem here.

"No censorship in the classic sense"

Köster: Chancellor Angela Merkel even speaks of censorship. Can one even speak of censorship in this context? It actually comes from the state.

Chain man: In fact, there is no censorship here. If, for example, the government spokesman also speaks of the fact that these platforms must respect freedom of expression, one has to differentiate a bit. Private individuals are not simply bound by freedom of expression. Therefore, there is no censorship in the classical sense here. But what has taken place is a turning point, a moment that will no longer exist. Namely a moment when we all saw how powerful these platforms have become. And it is therefore also good that we can now enter into a more critical debate about what the platforms are allowed to do and what they should be. And above all, what tasks the states have. Because if the Chancellor, for example, criticizes the platforms for making these decisions, then she also says that the states should play a more important role here. And that's right! It is states that have the central responsibility to protect the fundamental rights of their citizens, of all of us. They haven't done that enough in terms of platforms over the past few years.

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Köster: Are the advances that are now coming from the EU, for example, sufficient in your eyes?

Chain man: They are definitely an important and correct step. The law on digital services, which the European Union is now in, did not come about in a vacuum. Germany has pushed ahead with the Network Enforcement Act. Much of the content of the law on digital services makes a lot of sense: more transparency, an obligation for platforms to clarify which algorithms they use, special responsibility for large platforms. All of this is very important given the role the platforms play in public discourse. Rooms were created here, ten years ago, where important social decisions are prepared, where opinions are exchanged. And for too long, the states have simply allowed these spaces to arise, have done too little against hate speech and, above all, have not adequately accompanied the platforms' responsibility.

"States cannot regulate the details too much"

Köster: One has the impression that precisely this problematic aspect of the networks is something that has long been shown to the states, but that they have not been able to pursue an effective regulatory policy and that these advances that you have mentioned have so far been more of the same weak attempts are to contain power.

Chain man: Well, of course, the platforms also have to set up private rules. And they have recognized the platforms, especially in the last year, that these rules are of particular importance, for example in the fight against corona-related disinformation or in the fight against disinformation about elections or hate speech in the context of elections. States cannot regulate the details of online communication too tightly because they have to respect the freedom of expression of their citizens. We don't want states that can intervene too much in what we say on the Internet and offline. Because we must not forget that there are states that are far less sensitive to fundamental rights than Germany. Even within the European Union we find states that are tempted to intervene very strongly in online freedom. At the same time, we cannot uncritically trust platforms to set the right rules. We have to watch them, we have to critically discuss the rules that they have.

Köster: The media scientist Bernhard Pörksen called this morning on Deutschlandfunk in an interview with platform councils for social networks. How do you see that as a media lawyer?

Chain man: The idea of ​​a platform council or a social media council has been around for a number of years. The idea is good. There are already some councils of this kind, for example from Facebook, which recently set up an oversight board. Exactly these questions are to be debated there: How are decisions to be made in individual cases? Which content should be kept online, which should be deleted? The platform councils are therefore definitely an idea whose time has come. And opening Facebook's oversight board to all companies, for example, would make perfect sense. That is why Facebook urgently needs to submit the case of Mr Trump's account deletion to this oversight board. Now that would be a real test of whether this oversight board can have teeth at all.

Statements by our interlocutors reflect their own views. Deutschlandfunk does not adopt statements made by its interlocutors in interviews and discussions as its own.