What can users do when social media platforms around the world surrender to government dictates?

Social media platform businesses are reeling from an onslaught of regulatory efforts from all major governments of the world.

In the United States, the Supreme Court is hearing arguments in a case that will rule on social media companies’ responsibility for the content displayed on their platforms and recommended to users.

Platforms are protected from legal liability for the content that users post. So you can’t sue Facebook for a defamatory article your rival posted on the platform. The outcome of this case will be crucial in determining corporate legal responsibility. Several cases on similar issues are pending in Indian courts, but with no fixed timetable for hearing dates or final decisions.

The current market realities are also hurting the advertising companies, the true source of the social media platforms’ wealth. Social media giants have laid off tens of thousands of employees, including – at Twitter – entire departments responsible for interacting with national governments’ takedown requests.

If these behavioral behemoths were ever willing to challenge government hyperbole, that time is probably gone forever. “We obey local law wherever we do business” is a position so obviously sufficient that even Twitter’s messy new owner, businessman Elon Musk, hasn’t felt the need to deviate from it.

Regardless of how cases are decided, there are many more laws to follow around the world.

Countries, meanwhile, have launched large-scale regulatory efforts to control the free flow of information. India’s Department of Electronics and Technology has drafted rules to remove messages it deems “fake or false” and to moderate online content. Some of it necessary and most of it an overstatement.

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With the entry into force of the European Union’s Data Services Act – which aims to protect the fundamental rights of users – national legislators and perhaps even the United States Congress are considering new regulatory regimes. Concerned about “misinformation,” lawmakers are promoting requirements for faster shutdowns, with greater legal and tort liability for failure to comply.

Photo credit: AFP.

These are, on the face of it, regimes that aim to turn platforms into efficient subcontractors for the suppression of “misinformation”. This certainly always includes all information that a government wants to suppress. As mentioned earlier, clashes between national governments and platforms have always been settled at the expense of user rights.

We are by no means leaving behind a golden age. But the immediate surrender of Twitter and YouTube to government demands to remove all links to “objectionable” journalism proves that we can no longer count on token resistance, let alone serious and effective political engagement.

Platforms have been used to test governments’ censorship resolve to maintain their credibility with users as defenders of free speech, just as they built content moderation systems to maintain brand safety credibility with advertisers. But users’ trust has long since waned and such gestures are usually too expensive for their scarce resources.

In the past few days, social media platforms have immediately shut down posts, articles, coverage, documentaries, and films, not for extraordinary reasons, but for the reasons that will largely determine their behavior from now on. They won’t raise issues because they can no longer afford to raise those issues. Their silence means user rights aren’t even a claim anymore.

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A concept fundamental to democratic liberty, that people have a right to learn from what their government derides as propaganda, is not only being dishonored but – effectively – ceases to exist. As humanity’s sober thoughts turned against platforms in recent years, they continued to claim that their good work – bringing people together, including the organization for social change – outweighed their increasingly obvious downsides.

But in their new roles as active implementers of every government’s preferred censorship policies, these companies have abandoned the one argument in their favor. “Making the world more connected” while scrupulously approving all censorship requests from aspiring despots is complicit in the spread of despotism.

Photo credit: AFP.

This problem with centralized social sharing services has been pointed out by opponents of social media platforms for more than a decade. Now we could witness the platforms proclaiming the doctrine directly themselves. So this is the new social contract: governments will allow social media platforms to collect all behavioral data of their citizens (movement, communication patterns, reading, viewing and listening preferences, desires and searches) in exchange for suppressing all information about leadership desires disappeared.

What users get in return involves the undermining of all privacy and integrity rights by state-licensed private companies. We, the users, are now being offered content that is in the common interest of the government and platform companies, without anyone asserting our rights. This is how we begin to lose our democratic rights because we don’t know how to break away from the social media platform corporations. We do not yet have credible alternatives to exercise our rights.

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Governments have bought into platforms and will prefer humanity to use technology in these freedom-destroying ways. The Saudi Arabian monarchy, which in January sentenced an academic to death for comments he made on Twitter, is believed to be the biggest investor in Musk’s takeover of Twitter.

Not all countries are so obvious. But when we have reached the point where, in the interests of their individual and collective freedoms, people should remove their daily lives from social media platforms, they cannot count on their governments to help them do so.

Users must take power into their own hands and demand human-friendly technology from all players. This must be kept in mind as the world decides what comes next at this turning point.

Eben Moglen is a law professor at Columbia University and Mishi Choudhary is a technology attorney.