On whose authority
While Twitter's act of permanently suspending US President Trump's account last week had many supporters, it has also raised several major concerns. It is important to consider that independent of the circumstances that prompted it, Twitter's action set a significant precedent. This is the first time any social media company has gone so far as to completely suspend the account of a world leader. While there are many who say that such measures are long overdue, other experts have warned that this escalation will represent a turning point in how governments worldwide treat social media. In essence, by choosing to censor Trump due to particular views, they are making active editorial decisions that cast these companies as publishers and not simply platforms. This is significant because this is precisely the distinction that has continued to protect social media companies from being sued for the content that is posted on their platforms.
It is important to recognise that as the situation stands now, the US Capitol riots firmly placed social media companies between a rock and a hard place. In the given scenario, if the companies had not rushed to censor Trump as they did, they would stand to be blamed for refusing to take responsibility for their part in the events that transpired. Indeed, in the EU, the storming of the Capitol is being seen as a watershed moment in the struggle to force social media companies to do more to tackle illegal or problematic content on their platforms. The EU Commissioner for Internal Market was recently quoted as saying that "Just as 9/11 marked a paradigm shift for global security, 20 years later we are witnessing a before-and-after in the role of digital platforms in our democracy," To the EU and those like-minded, the actions of Twitter and other social media giants is just a long-overdue acceptance of a responsibility and role that they always held due to the nature of their influence and the size of their reach. On the other side of this debate, certain political leaders in India have pointed towards the very same actions by social media companies as proof that they are out of control and in need of regulation. The simple logic behind this concern is questioning what authority Twitter or similar platforms have to arbitrate on what is permissible free-speech and what isn't. This is a particularly complicated matter in regards to political speech. Many say that if the companies do not hesitate to silence the POTUS, who is safe from their arbitration?
For their part, social media companies and big tech looks firmly resolved to weigh-in on this complicated matter. This is evidenced by big tech companies collectively castigating the social media app Parler for not falling in line. Parler, which previously built its reputation on not censoring 'free-speech' has categorically refused to censor extremist or problematic content that the other social media companies are collectively engaged in controlling and purging. Both Apple and Amazon have collectively suspended Parler from their app store and web hosting service respectively for not taking adequate measures to control the spread of posts that incite violence. This follows similar action taken by Google to hold Parler responsible.
In short, the US Capitol riots can be rightly seen as a turning point in the battle to regulate big tech and social media companies. While both the incoming and outgoing US administrations have expressed intent to regulate social media, they have expressed different reasons for doing so. At the same time, differing interpretations of free speech will likely split the social media scene neatly into two sections with one part deciding to weigh in on content published on their platform regardless of the ultimate consequences and the other sticking to a narrative of staying as bastions of free speech. There is no inherently 'right answer' in this situation.