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Regulating Online Content – The Balance Between Free Speech and Free-For-All

This year kicked off with an explosive culmination to the ongoing tensions between free speech and social media, with Twitter bans, lawsuits and enduring questions about who gets to regulate content on the internet—or if it should be regulated at all. America is distinctly uncomfortable with the government stepping in to regulate speech. But public pressure has forced Big Tech to fill the void, spurring claims of unfair treatment and violations of First Amendment rights.

At the heart of the matter: unlike other countries that have laws against hate speech and fake news, America seems to have left it up to private companies to decide what content is acceptable with little legal obligation to explain their choices. Compounding the problem is what some argue the enormous power that a few big tech companies wield over our online infrastructure and channels of communication, leaving some to wonder if service providers like Facebook should really be treated more like a utility, with the government regulations to match. 

Are there restrictions or laws regulating online content?

In Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union, the U.S. Supreme Court declared speech on the Internet equally worthy of the First Amendment’s historical protections. That means pornography, violent films, explicit racism are all fair game on social media in the eyes of the law. The government only deems very narrow categories of speech as criminal, such as “true threats,’ or language that is explicitly intended to make an individual or group fear for their life or safety. Although it’s interesting to note that arguing a politician should be shot wouldn’t necessarily meet the criteria for incitement or true threat.

As of late, America has held tightly to an interpretation of the First Amendment that protects the free marketplace of ideas, even when it comes at a cost. Landmark cases like Brandenburg v. Ohio that protected the speech of a Ku Klux Klan leader, have solidified our particularly high bar for punishing inflammatory speech.  

But America has also supported the rights of private companies to decide what kind of speech is appropriate in their venues and by extension, virtual squares. Unlike most of the world, where ISPs are subject to state mandates, content regulation in the United States mostly occurs at the private or voluntary level. Social media companies are allowed to decide what their user policies are and are expected to self-regulate, creating internal speech policies that, in theory, protect against unfair censorship.

Beyond the social media companies themselves, the regulators and legal recourse that do exist present their own set of problems. ICANN, the non-profit that controls contracts with internet registries (.com, .org, .info, etc.) and registrars (companies that sell domain names), has immense power over who gets to claim a domain name—ICANN decisions are not subject to speech claims based on the First Amendment. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), designed to offer anti-piracy protections, is often used as a tool of intimidation or as a means for companies to keep a tight control on how consumers use their copyrighted works, stifling free speech in the process. Apple, for example, tried to use the DMCA in 2009 to shut down members in the online forum BluWiki who were discussing how to sync music playlists between iPods and iPhones without having to use iTunes. John Deere refuses to unlock its proprietary tractor software to let farm owners repair their own vehicles, leaving tractor owners in fear of DMCA lawsuits if they try to crack the software protections themselves.

The Growing Pressure to Regulate Content

In the absence of legal pressure, public opinion seems to be the real driver of online content regulation. It was a tipping point of public outrage that finally pushed big tech to ban the president and Parler. Apple pulled Tumblr from the App Store in 2018 because it was failing to screen out child sex abuse material, but only after multiple public complaints. After decades of proudly promoting free speech, regardless of the consequences, external pressures are now forcing companies like Facebook to police their domains, using legions of reviewers to flag harmful content.

While the world grapples with how to manage online speech, it’s clear that businesses will continue to face a variety of legal, social, and moral pressures regarding the content they provide or facilitate—and they must be prepared to monitor and account for what goes on in their virtual public spaces. Companies that allow for the posting of content – words, photos, videos – have a slew of laws to consider in allowing this practice, including free speech rights and controls. Companies should work with sophisticated and experienced tech legal counsel, like Beckage, to address these issues.

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