Among those things that the current pandemic has brought into sharper focus is the degree to which we are all spending more time online, and what we read and hear when we do. As the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines continues, there is legitimate concern about what is being posted in particular on social media seeking to persuade us not to take the vaccine. There is a balance to be struck between freedom of speech and the responsible protection of the public interest. It should of course be permissible to question, doubt or dispute the evidence for the use of vaccines and their safety, but some of what is being promulgated is utterly false and known by those posting it to be so. The consequence of these posts being seen and believed may be that some who could be protected by these vaccines will not be and it may take all of us longer to get back to the fully open schools and properly functioning economy we so desperately need. Individuals should be held to account for what they do, but the key question for those of us who have been concerned with better online regulation for some time is what responsibility should the social media platforms and search engines take for the material that appears on their sites and services, and what action should they take to remove the damaging and the dangerous?
The answers are the responsibility of national governments and regulators, but because the internet does not respect national borders, what other countries do matters too. Given that most of the internet companies of concern here are based in the United States, what the US Government does matters most. Of course, it is the approach of the Biden administration will take that matters now, but as one might have expected, former President Trump is still managing to be a large part of the story. Among the many striking features of what unfolded in Washington DC over the last few weeks, I suspect the decision that will come to have the most lasting significance was that of Twitter and Facebook to exclude Trump from their services. For years, digital companies such as these have maintained that they are platforms not publishers, in other words that they have no real control of what is said on their platforms and that they do not make editorial decisions about who gets to say what there. Although they will say it was merely an application of their existing rules, and whether it was a good or bad decision, I think it is clear that banning a sitting President from their services makes it much, much harder for them to maintain the argument that they have no role in, or responsibility for, what is said on them. The legislative protection US websites enjoy from responsibility for third party content is still there, but the political will to change it is growing. If that translates into action, the online platforms’ efforts to resist it will be seriously weakened. Historians may reflect on the ramifications of that for even longer than on those of an angry mob inside the US Capitol at the bitter end of a turbulent Presidency.