Freedom of Expression Series, Episode 9:
Calls for violence, conspiracy theories and censorship: social networks have a lot of power. Too much, critics say. Switzerland is dependent on the judgment of its citizens. So how can the Internet once again become an asset to democracy?
This content was published on May 12, 2021 – 10:22 am
Social networks have become an essential channel for public debate. But it is rarely seen as a gain for democracy. On the contrary, they are seen as a tool for fake news, conspiracy theories and hate messages. In 2017, the Swiss Federal Council declared: “a new regulation for social networks is not necessary.” At the same time, fears are growing that private tech companies will exercise more and more power and silence dissenting voices.
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In principle, everything should be crystal clear. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the UN Convention on Civil and Political Rights (1966) state that “everyone has the right to freedom of expression, including the right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of any kind, regardless of frontier, orally. , in writing, print or artistic form or otherwise of your choice. ” In Europe, the European Convention on Human Rights (1950) affirms freedom of expression as a legally binding right (Article 10). Switzerland enshrines this fundamental freedom in Article 16 of the 1999 Constitution.
In practice, however, these basic principles remain controversial. Many governments around the world are failing to protect the right to freedom of expression, but are increasingly undermining it. In other parts of the world, individuals and groups exercise freedom of speech to justify discriminatory and hate speech. But even though it is a universal right, freedom of speech is not an absolute right. Securing and enforcing it is always a balancing act.
In a new series from SWI swissinfo.ch, we address these different aspects, challenges, opinions and developments around freedom of expression, in Switzerland and around the world. We provide a platform for citizens to talk about the topic, we offer analyzes from recognized experts and we highlight local and global developments. Readers are, of course, invited to join the debate and make their voices heard.
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In an interview with SWI swissinfo.ch, cyber expert Marietje Schaake warns about the dangers of unregulated social networks: “It shows the power that these companies have. They are too powerful, especially the internet giants that manage social networks and search engines. These companies are capable of “To move not only lots of consumers, but also lots of voters. This influence is becoming more and more apparent and the problem must now be tackled.”
What does it take for social exchange on the Internet, above all, to be seen again as a gain for democracy? Who can stop polarization, and how? Politics, by creating laws? Technology companies, by setting rules? Or civil society, by sanctioning what is not good for it?
For many specialists, it is precisely in society that the solution lies. The change must come from the bottom up, thought of by users, for example, supports Audrey Tang, Taiwan’s Minister of Digital Affairs. In a way, change must happen in a democratic way.
Meanwhile, many countries are seeking to resolve the issues by adopting new laws and regulations. Germany played a pioneering role with its Network Implementation Act (NetzDG). This applies to all platforms with more than two million users in Germany. They must ensure that complaints are thoroughly investigated and that illegal content is removed within 24 hours. In 2019, Facebook had to pay a fine of two million euros for not complying with its regulations.
The German law is a successful export product: In October 2020, researchers from the Danish think tank Justitia had identified a total of 25 countries that are developing or have adopted laws inspired by NetzDG.
The problem is that the basic idea of German law is easily hijacked by less democratic governments. In their report, the Danish scientists point out that this network implementation law contains legal certainty guarantees and mechanisms for the protection of freedom of expression, which have not been raised to the same level in all countries.
For example, India has adopted new rules banning content that threatens “India’s unity, integrity, defense, security and sovereignty” – a wording that appears to be designed to dampen dissonant voices.
Russia also explicitly refers to NetzDG in its rules against false information. But in 2020, it added a legal framework that allows the Internet to be completely blocked in the event of an “emergency”, without specifying what exactly this term covers.
Propaganda in Hungary and Poland
What falls under the fight against hatred for some becomes censorship for others. For Petra Grimm, professor of digital ethics at the University of Media in Stuttgart, it is clear that freedom of opinion does not just mean that one can say everything unhindered: “like freedom in general, freedom of opinion is always bounded by certain limits,” she states.
In Poland, the confrontation followed a long-running dispute between Facebook and members of the ruling political party, which repeatedly posted anti-LGBT messages on social media and was excluded from the platform.
While most countries strive to prevent the publication of dangerous or hostile content on the Internet, Poland and Hungary have taken a different approach: Both countries want to prevent Facebook and others from blocking user profiles as long as their publications do not violate any internal law.
In February, the Hungarian Minister of Justice (on Facebook) said that major social networks wanted to “limit the visibility of Christian, conservative and right-wing views”.
Call for action in Switzerland
Switzerland has so far no specific rules for social networks. Web activist Jolanda Spiess-Hegglin, who is leading the fight against online hatred with the organization Netzcourage, believes that action is needed. According to her, “a member of the Federal Council should decide: Now we are setting up a working group and we are drafting a law on hate speech”.
The activist believes that it is too easy, after making discriminatory or malicious calls, to get away with, for example, pretending that we have been hacked or that someone else has been behind our computer.
Ethicist Petra Grimm, for her part, stresses that it is not just a duty of politicians. For her “it is also a responsibility of technology companies, a responsibility of self-control”.
In some countries, Facebook or Twitter are now even calling for clearer rules. But that does not convince Jolanda Spiess-Hegglin: “When companies ask the state for clearer rules, it’s like a killer saying ‘do not sell me a knife, otherwise I will kill someone’.”
The deadly click run
Trading platforms are unlikely to develop significantly alone. For Petra Grimm, the basic problem is structural: “very spectacular news, which goes a little beyond the truth, but above all evokes emotions, will be the most clicked. And clicks are, of course, the trade in social networks. “Or, as Jolanda Spiess-Hegglin sums it up:” Social networks let hateful expressions get through because it gives them clicks and therefore money. “
How do you get out of this logic? “We need an alternative social network that works on the principles of a public law agreement and that allows communication without being commercially exploited,” Petra Grimm suggests.
What the ethics professor has in mind already exists. In Taiwan, for example, the PTT platform is funded by the National University, independent of money powers and without shareholders.
In an interview with SWI swissinfo.ch, Audrey Tang, the island’s Minister of Digital Affairs, describes this system as an example of social value and opposes it to commercial networks, which she describes as “anti-social”.
“We need a new story”
For social networks to develop in the right direction, the pressure must come from society, says Audrey Tang. An example: in Taiwan, civil society has called for more transparency in politics. And got it. “This hard-fought radical transparency about political campaign funding has become the norm.” In Taiwan, Facebook is now also complying and revealing in real time what political propaganda is. “We have not made a law on the matter. It is based solely on sanctions from society, “the minister cheers.
Fabrizio Gilardi, a professor of political science who is active in digitalisation research, also emphasizes the need for deep thinking about how we interact with the digital world. For him “it is not primarily a legal issue but a question of how we will deal with it as a society”.
Activist Jolanda Spiess-Hegglin is also convinced that we must rethink the direct exchange with our fellow human beings. “We must learn to cultivate communication that does not degenerate. Social networks are above all a gift to activists that you hardly hear about in the traditional media ”.
Switzerland is dependent on personal judgment
“Users of social networks need to develop a virtuous culture,” argues ethicist Petra Grimm. “We need a new narrative that should be more optimistic and value-oriented.” For her, creating alternatives to the tech giants will require effort and political support, and “this should be done at least at European level – which includes Switzerland.”
But European rules are not currently among the priorities of the Swiss authorities. The Federal Office of Communications is investigating possible approaches to managing online platforms, but is looking for a solution specific to Switzerland. Matthias Ammann, from the liberal think tank Avenir Suisse, prefers to rely on the common sense of enlightened citizens rather than rules. After all, Swiss direct democracy is proof of the trust that is in them, he writes in NZZ.
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