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Europe is More Vulnerable to Big Tech Censorship than America

The EU is poised to waste an opportunity to raise the standard for online free speech rights

Conservatives—nay, anyone concerned with free speech and open inquiry—welcomed last week’s subpoenas of big tech executives from Senate Judiciary Republicans. At least those responsible for what looks awfully like attempted election interference through censorship will be held accountable to lawmakers—and the public—before November 3rd.

Twitter’s handling of the New York Post’s scoop on Hunter Biden’s China links was so outrageous—and the intent to influence the presidential race so palpable—that Sen. Lindsey Graham [R-SC] and his colleagues would be wise to draw the entire world’s attention to big tech’s unchecked power to regulate online speech.

From the European Union (EU), we should demand much in the the digital policy space, but expect little. Otherwise hailed for setting global digital standards on everything from privacy to antitrust, preventing censorship of the kind inflicted on the New York Post is an area where the bloc is likely to duck out. Ignoring a long record of speech suppression in its own jurisdiction, oversight of big tech’s political bias seems entirely absent from the agenda of the Digital Services Act, an ambitious plan the EU will unveil in the coming weeks to revamp its outdated regulatory framework for digital platforms.

But let’s start with a note of hope for American conservatives, who aren’t the only targets of big tech’s suppression. Following a similar template of unannounced takedowns, flustered explanations and a sense of alienation from entire swathes of users who feel shut out of the digital sphere for stating their opinions, European conservatives—from Poland to Spain and from Hungary to France—have grown accustomed to frequent run-ins with big tech’s censorship apparatus. The cases are so numerous that highlighting just a few will give a broad enough sense of the problem.

Towards the end of January, Spain’s conservative Vox party—the country’s third largest and increasingly seen as the only clear-cut alternative to the left in government—saw its Twitter account of over 420,000 followers suspended in what its leader Santiago Abascal called “an unprecedented act of censorship” in Spain’s short-lived, 40-year-old democratic experiment. According to Twitter Spain CEO Nathalie Picquot’s belated explanation, the party had broken the platform’s hate speech rules in a tweet earlier that day surmising that Spain’s premature inclusion of sexual education in primary school curricula amounted to “promoting pedophilia.” Granted, Vox’s tweet was an audacious bomb-throw, but so was Twitter’s indictment of it for allegedly inciting hate speech.

The move also revealed a clear double standard—a few weeks earlier, the head of the far-left Podemos party and now deputy PM Pablo Iglesias had tweeted that, “Spain needs more recortes (Spanish for spending cuts) but with the guillotine.” Hate, and the kind of speech that incites it, is clearly in the eyes of the beholder, a role that Twitter has proven all too keen to fill at the expense of freedom of expression.

Like Vox, countless other conservative parties and opinion-makers have become censorship targets across Western Europe, but the stakes of big tech’s power and the questions it raises turn all the more complex the further east you look. For one thing, these targets have included the conservative governments of Hungary and Poland, raising even graver concerns around the ability of elected officials to communicate with the public they represent through a platform that has often boasted a role as a catalyst of good governance. About Hungary—a portal run out of the cabinet office of Hungary’s PM Viktor Orbán—was the victim of this kind of muzzling this very month, when the portal’s Twitter account was suspended with no prior notice. When he protested, Zoltán Kovács—Hungary’s Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and the owner of the account—was met with Twitter’s familiar defense: “it was an honest mistake.” A coincidence so strange that it’s hard to believe, given Hungary’s recurring centrality in EU-wide debates, both as a reference for conservatives on everything from border security to pro-family policy and as the EU’s bête noire of sorts for allegedly breaching the bloc’s rule of law norms.

In Poland, conservative voices are no safer, even when the government of the Law & Justice Party tries to carve out a role as a buffer between them and big tech’s censors. “The situation is critical. They treat us like a colony because they have become a monopoly. Something needs to be done.” The outraged plea is from Tomasz Sakewicz, editor-in-chief of Gazeta Polska and deputy CEO of Telewizka Republika, whose official Twitter account @PolandDaily remains suspended since July this year, still without comment from Twitter, despite various appeals. In this case, the reasons for Twitter’s censoring involve a most interesting cast of characters. The account’s suspension came the day it was cyberattacked from Russia, as part of the Kremlin’s attempts to whip up fear in Belarus, a neighbor to both countries, regarding a fictional looming invasion by NATO allies Poland and Lithuania. A fake news account appeared on the hacked website with information about an alleged plot by the two countries to send out troops to topple Putin’s Belarussian ally Lukashenko—a clear hoax.

So far, it’s the same routine in that corner of the world. While Twitter has elsewhere boasted an eagerness to scuttle Russian disinformation, in this instance it used that very disinformation as an excuse to keep @PolandDaily suspended. Perhaps Twitter really sought to deprive the Kremlin of hacking potential in Poland at the expense of their target’s right to free expression. In that case, the move backfired by failing to expose the hack in even broader daylight than it would have otherwise faced. Or, perhaps depriving a popular conservative outlet of its voice on Twitter was the real driving aim all along, and acting as a shield against Russia was simply a convenient excuse cooked up by Twitter after the fact. When it comes to disabling Russia’s disinformation efforts, Twitter has tended to disappoint lawmakers on both sides of the pond. When such disabling can be simultaneously be an opportunity to suppress conservative voices, however, the platform has been all too willing to take action.

Even more interestingly, Sakewicz has claimed that online harassment from local leftist groups has also exposed his network to censorship from Twitter. A recent target of just this kind of cooperation between Twitter and left-wing online activists was @BasedPoland, another highly popular conservative handle run by Swedish-Pole pundit Adam Starzynski, who inspired many other users to emulate his online initiative in what became a pan-European @Based network. Starzynski’s account was suspended shortly after the left-wing Oko.press news portal launched a series of investigative reports on the Polish right’s connections abroad. One piece in particular, redacted by Anna Mierzyńska, reads like a poorly reported dirt-digging operation, and both Starzynski and Sakewicz surmise that the report’s wide circulation among Poland’s tech-savvy urban liberals, along with its closeness in timing to Twitter’s @BasedPoland ban, leave no doubt as to the platform’s true motive.

Given how digital regulation across the EU’s member states has been mostly delegated to the supranational level, the obvious question in view of Twitter’s zeal for censorship is whether the bloc can act as a bulwark against it. Considering the EU’s power to set global digital standards—most recently, congressional Democrats alongside several states led by California put forth replicas of the EU’s controversial General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)— action from the EU should be on the wish list for Americans concerned with censorship. And even though European conservatives share such hopes, the prospects of any EU action against big tech’s censorship of right-leaning views are, well, nil. Among the ambitious array of digital policies the EU is currently working on, checking Twitter’s content moderation bias for political balance is unfortunately absent.

The EU’s next big digital space policy, the Digital Services Act (DSA), an ambitious initiative pledged by Ursula Von der Leyen before being sworn in as European Commission President in January, is now undergoing consultations with various European Parliament committees before a final proposal is released this winter. The DSA looks to replace the EU’s current regulatory framework from the early 2000s–the so-called eCommerce directive—by 1. beefing up privacy protections—platforms may be forced to share their individual user data with competitors—, 2. toughening antitrust rules—digital giants will no longer be able to “self-preference” their own apps in mobile phones—and 3. deepening the EU’s so-called “digital single market”—allowing consumers and companies to carry out unhampered online commerce across the EU.

Theoretically, the DSA also serves as an opportunity for the EU to clamp down on digital platforms’ politically-biased content moderation. That opportunity is not one the EU is likely to take up, however. DG Connect—the European Commission’s department in charge of drafting the DSA—confirmed in the summer that the proposed legislation would actually “involve rethinking the liability rules” enshrined in article 14 of the eCommerce directive—the equivalent to section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. However, any action DSA may take on platform censorship is likely to cater to information producers—whose lobbying through left-leaning EU-wide journalist networks is particularly intense—instead of information consumers, who lack meaningful representation in Brussels. The DSA has been less focused on protecting the right to access heterodox opinions, and more focused on denying repressive governments the ability to censor journalists on Twitter, as well as slowing the ability of digital monopolies to suck up ad revenue at the expense of independent journalism.

Unless European conservative parties can mount a solid front to expand the DSA’s focus into Twitter’s censorship practices, the opportunity for the EU to set a higher standard on freedom of speech is likely to go to waste. Given the platform’s rampant censorship in Europe, we’re likely to see even higher rates of suppression of right-leaning views online at a time when the U.S. looks closer to eliminating section 230 liability protections for big tech.

Jorge González-Gallarza (@JorgeGGallarza) is the co-host of the Uncommon Decency podcast on European issues (@UnDecencyPod) and an associate researcher at Fundación Civismo. 

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