Angela Merkel, German chancellor, has sharply criticised Twitter’s decision to ban US president Donald Trump, calling it a “problematic” breach of the “fundamental right to free speech”.
Twitter suspended Mr Trump’s account last week in the aftermath of the riots at the Capitol Building, citing “repeated and severe” violations of its civic integrity policies. Facebook has taken similar action.
But Ms Merkel said through her spokesman that the US government should follow Germany’s lead in adopting laws that restrict online incitement, rather than leaving it up to platforms such as Twitter and Facebook to make up their own rules.
The intervention highlights a key area of disagreement between the US and Europe on how to regulate social media platforms. The EU wants to give regulators more powers to force internet platforms such as Facebook or Twitter to remove illegal content.
In the US, technology companies have traditionally been left to themselves to police their own sites, though momentum is gathering behind political moves to curtail their regulatory freedoms. Several members of Congress are working on bills which would limit the legal protections social media companies have from being sued for third-party content posted on their sites. Others are pushing for a new federal data privacy bill that could mirror the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation.
Twitter’s share price fell more than 7 per cent on Monday to about $48, as investors were spooked by the renewed debate into the prospect of tighter social media regulation.
Ms Merkel’s spokesman, Steffen Seibert, said free speech was a “fundamental right of vital importance” that could be restricted, “but only in accordance with the laws and within a framework defined by the legislator — not by the decision of the management of social media platforms”.
He said for that reason the chancellor found it “problematic” that Mr Trump’s accounts had been indefinitely suspended.
Mr Seibert referred to a German law on online hate speech that came into force in 2018, putting the country at the forefront of global efforts to police the internet.
The Network Enforcement Act requires social media to remove potentially illegal material within 24 hours of being notified or face fines of up to €50m. It is considered one of the western world’s toughest restrictions on online content.
Ms Merkel’s criticism of the ban was echoed by France’s finance minister Bruno Le Maire. Mr Le Maire told France Inter on Monday that he was “shocked” by Twitter’s move. He added: “Digital regulation should not be done by the digital oligarchy itself . . . Regulation of the digital arena is a matter for the sovereign people, governments and the judiciary.”
The ban has also come under attack from Alexei Navalny, the prominent Russian blogger and dissident. He called it “an unacceptable act of censorship” that would be used by the Kremlin to justify his own blacklisting by state media.
“The ban on Twitter is a decision of people we don’t know in accordance with a procedure we don’t know,” he said in a Twitter message, adding that the decision was “based on emotions and personal political preferences”.
“This precedent will be exploited by the enemies of freedom of speech around the world,” he wrote. “In Russia as well. Every time when they need to silence someone, they will say: ‘this is just common practice, even Trump got blocked on Twitter.’”
Mr Navalny is recuperating in Germany after he was poisoned by a nerve agent in an attack he says was orchestrated by the Russian secret services.
He said if Twitter wanted to block people, it could “create some sort of a committee that can make such decisions”.
He added: “We need to know the names of the members of this committee, understand how it works, how its members vote and how we can appeal against their decisions.”
Twitter’s move against Mr Trump was also condemned by Vladimir Soloviev, one of Russia’s leading state media propagandists. “So it is argued that the US Constitution is lower than the internal documents of the Twitter company?” he wrote on his Telegram channel.
“Is it permissible for private companies to create zones free from the American constitution?” said Mr Soloviev, who hosts a weekly television show dedicated to what Russian president Vladimir Putin has done that week. “This is not just a story about Trump.”
Separately, Ramzan Kadyrov, the strongman militant leader of Chechnya, remarked that he and Mr Trump were now united in censorship, after his accounts on Facebook and Instagram were blocked.
“Now I have something in common with Donald Trump: whereas previously he blocked my accounts on social networks, now the Almighty God has restored justice, and, as a result, the accounts of the mutinous Donald Trump were also blocked,” Mr Kadyrov wrote on his Telegram channel.
Mr Seibert said that while objecting to outright bans, Ms Merkel had no objection to Twitter or Facebook warning users that some content — say, certain tweets by the US president alleging electoral fraud — was misleading.
He said social media companies bore “a great deal of responsibility for ensuring that political communication is not poisoned by hatred, lies and incitement to violence. And it’s right that they don’t stand idly by when content is posted on certain channels that falls into such categories.”
On Sunday, Parler, a niche Twitter rival popular among the far-right, was forced offline after Amazon withdrew its cloud services to the platform, citing its repeated failure to clamp down on content that incites violence. That followed similar moves by Google and Apple who banned the app from their app stores over the weekend on the same grounds.
“I never thought we’d be living in a country . . . where you could get co-ordinated companies cancelling what you’re doing,” John Matze, chief executive of Parler, told Fox News on Monday.
He added that his “billion-dollar company” had contacted other “big tech players” in order to find an alternative web-hosting provider, but been turned down.
Parler, a self-described “unbiased social media network” that purports to champion “free speech”, received 9.6m installs globally in 2020, about 7.8m of which were in the US, according to data from SensorTower.
Additional reporting by Kiran Stacey in Washington
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