Freedom of citizen expression in "private hands"

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By Guillermo Mejía

The big companies that own digital social platforms like Facebook, Google y Twitter, among other, have come to control the exercise of freedom of expression of citizens, since being private entities they have created regulations on what is publishable or not, beyond the role of the State and the presence of civil society organizations.

The warnings are made by the Argentine academics Martín Becerra and Silvio Waisbord in their article "The need to rethink the orthodoxy of freedom of expression in digital communication", Posted in Economic Development. Journal of Social Sciences, Vol. 60, number 232, corresponding to May 2021, in Buenos Aires.

Based on the experience of the flow of information and opinions during the Covid-19 pandemic, among other events, the specialists affirm that "several decisions of the dominant platforms generated enormous controversies about their outstanding position and the attribution of being the great publishers of public discourse".

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They remember Twitter's decision to remove “posts” from President Jair Bolsonaro, from Brazil, and suspend the accounts of officials of the Ministry of Public Health, from Venezuela, and Crisis Magazine, from Ecuador. further, From Facebook, of hiding messages from Bolsonaro or silencing journalists and activists in Tunisia.

The censorship of former US President Donald Trump a year ago and later in the framework of the elections that current president Joe Biden won were the most critical moments of the actions of the digital social platforms that, in the latter case, They were also accompanied by open television channels in the face of allegations of electoral fraud.

“The previous examples - and the subsequent blockade of Trump on the eve of the end of his term - make it clear that companies are in fact acting as regulators of public discourse according to, in principle, corporate conduct guidelines ", Argentine academics warn.

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"They are problematic decisions for several reasons. One of them is its discretion, while they are not applied standardized or systematically in all cases when certain "posts" go against their own rules.. The aforementioned cases are not the only ones in which supposedly governments or information media produce content contrary to the terms and conditions of each platform ", add.

And if that was not enough, the decisions of digital social platforms are opaque, since they do not usually explain the reasons they have for applying censorship or they try to involve various public actors in the definition of problem areas of discourse and necessary responses. They enjoy enormous autonomy from the State, civil society and other actors.

Becerra and Waisbord tell us that “the objects and practices that had as direct reference the landmark works on freedom of expression, of which the laws of the 19th century until the middle of the 20th century were its normative representation, they no longer function as they used to, nor do they convey most of the exchanges of news and opinions in contemporary societies ".

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"New practices, massive and global, they place the standards on freedom of expression in a zone of discomfort to satisfy with clear and expeditious answers to problems of recent appearance: discrimination and systematic harassment by trolls against a person or group of people on digital platforms can destroy their reputation and threaten their very life before the corresponding judicial process is substantiated that would demand the logic thought in times when the press, radio and television had editorial responsibility for their broadcasts and productive routines that today seem parsimonious compared to the vertigo of the networks ", they add.

In that frame, according to the authors, freedom of expression based on the principles of modern liberalism, especially the notion of the “market of ideas” as a guiding principle, It is insufficient to define what we understand as "democratic communication" according to the universalist paradigm on the right to expression crystallized by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 and the standards that, since then, were instituted in the world.

“The maximization of the expression of a more powerful voice - be it the State or the market - that limits the intervention of any actor produces counter-democratic phenomena that threaten fundamental human rights for public life, like the right to life, non-discrimination, Privacy, and data protection.

The maximalist version, that rejects any type of regulation or restriction to the alleged absolute individual freedom of expression in its individual dimension, it has been short-circuited with other fundamental rights for democracy since the aftermath of the Second World War ”, add.

Facing the challenges of that de facto control of the corporations that dominate digital social platforms, Becerra and Waisbord conclude:

“If we recognize that both hate speech and other forms of expression contrary to democratic communication, How misinformation and digital bullying are ungovernable, it is not clear what the possible social interventions and regulatory options are. How to regulate the seemingly impossible to regulate? What to do in the face of violent speech designed to deny the humanity of others, eliminate basic rules of communication in democracy and undermine the foundations of the public? How to protect at the same time the right to expression and the multiple rights that democracies must guarantee to citizens?”

"These questions are central to the structuring of public space (and in the repositioning of the private space) communication and, thus, the democratic vocation of the process chosen for the search for answers will condition not only its subsequent effectiveness, but its legitimacy. Leave this task to a few corporations, Conversely, you will subtract both attributes, with the effects already known and suffered in terms of civil and political rights ".

From our region, the problem does not transcend public discussion by politicians or civil society organizations, many of them impressed - or rather fascinated- with access to social networks to expose their points of view in front of the concert of diverse opinions on countless topics.

Much less is it seen with concern in the citizenship, since it seems that they have swallowed the pill that with these mechanisms of the new information and communication technologies it is really possible to speak of the "democratization" of society, To which the traditional media have a great debt due to the barriers they impose.

Y, Of course, much less is a critical discourse heard in the face of this disproportionate intervention of transnational companies by current leaders, like Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele, that is comfortable in that virtual space from where it "posts" any information, comment or misinformation.

Unlike, in september 2019, Bukele spoke at the United Nations about networks and new technologies, also of the obsolete format of the meeting and took a selfie: "Believe me, many more people will see this selfie than will listen to this speech… I hope it turned out well ”, He said. More critical vision is needed on the phenomenon.