As Calls for Regulation Mount, What’s Next for Tech Companies and the U.S. Government?

As Calls for Regulation Mount, What’s Next for Tech Companies and the U.S. Government?

eileen donahoe web Eileen Donahoe, executive director of the Global Digital Policy Incubator, presents at the 2019 Copenhagen Democracy Summit. Photo: Alliance of Democracies

As the internet has increasingly been used to weaponize information, governments and technology companies have begun to grapple with new issues surrounding free expression and privacy.

Technology companies are being called upon to reshape their privacy and hate speech policies, and politicians are tackling the possibility  of  tech industry regulation.

Achieving both of those things, according to Eileen Donahoe, executive director of the Global Digital Policy Incubator (GDPI), is easier said than done.

“They all know that they need help,” Donahoe told Freeman Spogli Institute Director Michael McFaul on an episode of the World Class podcast. “Private-sector entities are looking for help from civil society and academics. And governments need help if for no other reason than they don’t always understand what’s going on in the platforms."

Free Speech Dilemma
Facebook and Google both have their own definitions of free speech, their own community values and their own terms of service, which they dictate to their billions of users. But their parameters of free expression are not always aligned with those of the U.S. government, Donahoe said.

“There’s an interplay between the rules of the platforms and the rules of the governments in which they operate, and that’s causing a lot of confusion,” she said. “We’re trying to help develop an appropriate metaphor for what these platforms are — some see themselves as a utility, some see them as editors and media. Whatever metaphor you pick, the rules and responsibilities that flow from it will be different. And we don’t have a metaphor yet.”

Over the last few years, tech companies have begun asking outsiders for help in developing norms for their platforms. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced in 2018 that he was developing an “External Oversight Board” to help the company evaluate its community guidelines and for assistance with some of the content-based decisions on its platform.

Some companies are going as far as to call on the government for regulation, she said.

“They recognize that they’re not well suited to develop all of these norms for [their] platforms, which have such gigantic effects on society,” Donahoe said.

To Regulate or Not to Regulate
Several heads of technology companies have testified in front of the U.S. Senate this summer, including Zuckerberg, who answered questions about the company’s new cryptocurrency, and Karan Bhatia, Google's vice president for government affairs and public policy who testified on the question of whether Google’s search engine censors conservative media.

“Techlash” — the growing animosity toward large technology companies — has been on the rise, Donahoe said, and the government isn’t sure what their next steps are in handling these issues with the technology companies yet.

“So many congressional representatives and senators are a bit reticent to jump in,” she said. “They don’t want to undermine free expression, and they don’t want to destroy the American internet industry.”

Europe has already started  tackling this problem with the passage of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which standardizes data protection laws across all countries in the European Union.

Donahoe said that while she thinks the GDPR is a good move, there have been other laws passed in Europe, such as Germany’s Network Enforcement Act — which puts the liability on social media companies to censor the content on their respective platforms — that undermine free expression and democratic values.

“It shifts what we would normally consider democratic responsibility for assessing criminality to the private sector, and I find that problematic,” Donahoe said. “It’s a dangerous concept — a government is asking platforms to restrict content and be liable in a tort basis for content that is perceived to be harmful…it’s a very slippery slope.”

Related: Watch Eileen Donahoe’s interactive workshop on deep fakes at the June 2019 Copenhagen Democracy Summit

Eileen Donahoe served as the first U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. Follow her at @EileenDonahoe