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Government Needs to Set Rules to Limit Hate Speech Online, Says New America Panel

Emily McPhie

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WASHINGTON, June 5, 2019 – Further ratcheting up its call for government regulation of the technology industry, speakers at the New America's Open Technology Institute called for government rules to limit hate speech online.

Doing so is necessary in order to solve the dichotomy of maintaining free speech while limiting hate speech online, said panelists at the think tank's event entitled “Speech Police: The Global Struggle to Govern the Internet.”

United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression David Kaye said that the most important question for the future of freedom of speech would be how to companies such as Facebook can increase transparency so that everyone will be able to see and understand their rules for speech on their social network.

Additionally, said Kaye, the United States government must take timely action in creating laws about hate speech and disinformation: If the U.S. doesn’t make those decisions quickly, Europe will make them instead.

Since it will be easiest for companies to universally adapt their terms of service to fit European laws, this will frame how Americans experience the platform as well – much as the European model of privacy law is already beginning to dominate, globally.

In addition to increasing transparency, New America CEO Anne-Marie Slaughter said that people besides Facebook employees should be involved in the decision-making process in the first place.

Simply increasing transparency is not enough; companies should also be conducting human rights impact assessments, said Rebecca MacKinnon, director of the Ranking Digital Rights program at New America.  She said Facebook already does this relating to government censorship, but it should also research the impacts of its terms of service, use of artificial intelligence, and targeted advertising.

The notion of “ranking digital rights” is about creating standards for internet, mobile, and telecommunications companies that incentivize them to protect user’s rights. The project by that name at New America released a Corporate Accountability Index in May scoring companies like Google and Facebook on metrics including governance, freedom of expression, and privacy.

These benchmarks have had a significant impact on policies and regulation, leading several companies to start paying more attention to human rights, said MacKinnon.

Kaye said that the best way to protect these rights is government regulation. He acknowledged that American culture traditionally resists this answer, but pointed out that increased regulation is the model being adopted and making progress on these issues across the world.

The huge volume of content being constantly created means that individual platforms will need to be the first responders to hate speech and disinformation, making some form of accountability mechanism essential.

However, Kaye cautioned that regulation can be “incredibly risky” in its potential to lead to repression of speech. The right balance should be found through “robust and symmetric public debate,” he said.

MacKinnon said that public discourse about the regulation of the internet is often dramatically oversimplified. For example, after an altered video of Nancy Pelosi spread across the internet, many said that an individual subject to such manipulation should be able to easily call for the take down such false information about themselves. But such a rule could also effectively ban any form of satire.

Kaye emphasized the need for real research around the impact of live streaming and video on incitement to violence, citing incidents such as the recent Christchurch attack.

Everything is a tradeoff, he said, pointing out other situations where streaming and video have been very positive tools.

(Photo from screenshot of event with New America CEO Anne-Marie Slaughter interviewing David Kaye.)

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