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The White House is set to announce the details of its “Alliance for the Future of the Internet,” a proposed coalition of democratic nations charged with developing a set of principles for a secure and trusted Internet-based on shared democratic values. One of the top priorities for this coalition should be to develop a forum for building consensus on how online platforms should moderate content on social media—a thorny issue for governments grappling with how to address concerns such as disinformation, hate speech, and other problematic content while also protecting free expression online.
The debate surrounding online speech in the United States—including issues of free speech and censorship, harmful forms of speech, and algorithmic amplification of speech—has become split along party lines. Many Republicans argue that social media platforms remove too much content, including controversial political content, and that these restrictions are a violation of users’ First Amendment rights. On the other side, many Democrats argue that social media platforms don’t remove enough content that can lead to real-world harm, such as hate speech, misinformation and disinformation, and illegal content. Thus far, lawmakers have yet to bridge the divide between these two contradictory stances, and social media platforms, facing contradictory demands and combative legislative hearings, are caught between a rock and a hard place.
Bringing together an international coalition of countries with shared democratic values to develop shared norms for online speech issues could bypass this domestic partisan bickering and lead to the sort of consensus that currently does not seem feasible on a national level. Because however strong the disagreements may be between warring political factions on the floor of Congress, these differences pale in comparison to differences in free speech values between the United States and those of many authoritarian nations.
However, balancing the important values of free speech and harm reduction will remain a challenge. Democratic nations around the world have already taken different approaches to online speech, with some countries—including Australia, with its Sharing of Abhorrent Violent Material Act, and Germany, with its Network Enforcement Act—prioritizing harm reduction at the expense of free speech. Meanwhile, the United States’ intermediary liability law, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, has drawn criticism for failing to incentivize platforms to remove harmful content posted by users.
It is difficult for governments to regulate online speech without running into serious free speech concerns. Any law that penalizes companies that do not preemptively take down certain forms of content that may fall into a gray area of harmful but legal has the potential to stifle legitimate political and social discourse and the free exchange of ideas online by leading platforms to over-censor their users.
While every country will have to make its own decisions about what types of speech should be lawful and when online platforms should be liable for their users’ content and conduct, there is still plenty of room for international agreement on principles for transparency and accountability in content moderation, as well as developing recommendations for the most salient questions such as, “When should a platform block the account of elected officials?” Developing international consensus on these issues, with input from not only the government, but also the academia, civil society, and the private sector will provide guidance to online platforms that openly acknowledge they do not want to make these decisions themselves.
The White House’s draft proposal for the Alliance for the Future of the Internet does not currently mention online speech beyond the threat of misinformation and disinformation, but its scope could be expanded to include more of these issues. Alternatively, the United States could spearhead a separate effort to convene democratic nations specifically to discuss online speech concerns. Either way, the proposed Alliance shows the importance of international cooperation on Internet policy issues as a way to build consensus and the role the United States government can play in building the forums for these dialogues.