Social media firms can no longer shun responsibility for what is posted on their sites after banning Donald Trump and face an inevitable crackdown, former digital ministers have said.
Companies including Twitter, Facebook and Snap last week took action to silence the President in the wake of the riots at Capitol Hill, banning him from posting on their platforms. Twitter said it made the decision to suspend Mr Trump “due to the risk of further incitement of violence”.
Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg said that the “risks of allowing President Trump to continue to use our service during this period are simply too great”.
The move, whilst widely welcomed by many, has raised questions over claims made by social media firms that they are “platforms” rather than “publishers”, and so are not responsible for what is posted on their sites.
If they were to be classified as “publishers”, they would face legal obligations over what was and was not allowed to be posted on their sites.
Ed Vaizey, a former minister of state for Culture and the Digital Economy, branded the latest decision by social media firms as “a game-changer for social media”.
“It shows they are not, as they have always claimed, passive by-standers to the content on their platforms."
Mr Vaizey now acts as an adviser to US nonprofit group Common Sense Media and said he welcomed Mr Trump’s ban. However, he said: “If social media companies are able to take action like this, then the case for objective, government-backed regulation on how they make decisions like this is unarguable.”
His comments were echoed by Baroness Nicky Morgan, who served as Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport between 2019 to 2020, who said the decision “confirmed what many of us had known for some time-that social media companies couldn’t abdicate responsibility for the content on their sites”.
“These companies will say they have strict policies about how they expect people to behave on their sites, but the feeling has been that they haven’t policed this properly for many years, in a bid to expand their services and have more users. They have turned a blind eye to lots of things.”
Damian Collins, the former chair of the DCMS committee, added that it was clear that social media sites were “not just neutral platforms”. “Their business model is holding your attention. They do that by selecting and profiling the content that you most want to see. There should be some legal framework within which they make those decisions.”
Hours earlier, Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, had also suggested such decisions should not be solely made by social media sites, saying the move by Twitter was "problematic".
She said that freedom of expression was a "fundamental right can be intervened in, but according to the law and within the framework defined by legislators-not according to a decision by the management of social media platforms”. Shares in Twitter dipped as much as 10pc on Monday.
The UK is in the process of putting in place new online harms laws, which are set to impose tougher regulations over harmful content on social media sites.
The planned bill is expected to give Ofcom fresh powers to fine companies up to 10pc of their turnover, or up to £18m, if they break the rules, which are broadly focused on protecting children on their sites.
Clive Efford, a Labour MP who sits on the DCMS Committee, said it was “the responsibility of democratically elected representatives to set the framework of rules in which the platforms operate”.
“Social media companies should be responsible for the content that they allow to be placed on their platforms. I do not feel comfortable with companies like Facebook effectively becoming the arbiters of what is acceptable so they must be subject to strict regulation.”