Global norms are shifting as governments demonstrate an increased willingness to exert control over platforms. This generally represents a troubling development; states are aggressively pressing for content takedowns, pushing platforms to provide access to user data, enacting enhanced surveillance, and filtering content. But there are some auspicious signs as well. In Europe, for example, regulators are nearing passage of the Digital Services Act (DSA) to rein in big internet tech companies and allow for greater user control and privacy. This essay highlights three specific areas of contestation. First, trends of internet fragmentation are expanding quickly – in both authoritarian states and democratic countries – challenging global norms and human rights principles. Second, regulatory action stemming from Europe may offset certain harms, particularly in relation to platforms, but the consequences remain unclear. Third, platforms exist in a complicated landscape. They are facing increased pressure from governments to control how they operate, yet they remain deeply reluctant to reform.
Pressure against internet platforms increases – the splinternet grows
On April 28, the U.S. government launched a “declaration for the future of the internet.” The document reaffirmed the importance of ensuring an internet that is “open, free, global, interoperable, reliable, and secure” and the need to protect online human rights across the digital ecosystem. Sixty countries joined the United States in pledging to uphold these principles (although the number later dropped to 59 after Kenya stated that it had been erroneously included). The initial group of signatories conspicuously lacked several important stakeholders, including India, Brazil, Nigeria, and South Africa. Certain regions were under-represented. The Middle East included just one signatory – Israel. Africa included only two signatories: Niger and Cabo Verde.
A central motivation underlying the Declaration is the belief that splinternet trends are largely confined to autocratic governments and that they are reversible. In a background press call for the Declaration, a senior White House official observed, “I think the reality is that what we’re seeing as we look out over the world is a, you know, trend by some countries, and particularly some of the authoritarian countries, to try to create a splinternet.” But they noted that “galvanizing the world behind a shared vision is a very important part of pushing back on these splinternet tendencies.”
In reality, the splinternet ship has already sailed – and it is not limited to autocratic countries. Consider the manifold legal enactments implemented in erstwhile democracies like India, Turkey, and Indonesia to restrict how internet platforms operate. In India, for example, the new Information Technology Rules require firms to deploy AI-based moderation tools, open in-country offices, appoint local officers, and comply with takedown orders from a court, government agency, or “any other competent authority” within 36 hours. Failure to comply can lead to prison sentences of up to seven years. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see the potential for abuse. All told, Freedom on the Net documented in its latest report at least 24 countries which have “passed or announced new laws or rules governing how platforms treat content.” In this present moment, the question is not whether the splinternet trend will persist; rather, is there any possibility of slowing down accelerating patterns of internet fragmentation?
Liberal democracies (in Europe) demand a say
On a more positive note – despite incessant foot-dragging from the United States – European regulators have moved steadily forward to reshape how internet platforms operate. In the next couple years, the Digital Services Act, along with the Digital Markets Act, will come into force and profoundly affect how social media platforms handle user content and how they engage in market competition. Initial signs are encouraging, but it’s hard to know exactly how these rules will work in practice – and what their effect will be. Several areas bear particular attention. First, how EU regulators will actually implement the new rules remains unclear. We know that platforms will face heightened obligations to respond to government regulations to remove content or disclose user data, to publish transparency reports, and to build mechanisms for users to notify platforms about prohibited content, such as the presence of illegal hate speech. We also know that the DSA mandates additional requirements for “Very Large Online Platforms” or VLOPs. These enhanced requirements include undertaking formal risk assessments, interfacing regularly with regulators regarding platform practices and policies, and appointing special compliance officers accountable for policy changes. Translating high-level legal enactments into everyday operations will not be easy – and there is a lot of room for error along the way. This leads to a second area of concern: to what extent will other countries exploit the DSA to strengthen their sovereign authority over internet platforms, largely for censorship and political control? As we have seen with Germany’s NetzDG law, a regulation intended to counter online hate speech, autocratic regimes have used it as a template to crackdown on free speech. There is a very real risk that the DSA could similarly serve as a vessel for aspiring autocrats to suppress online communications.
The European regulatory push also raises an uncomfortable question: is the EU practicing a form of “digital colonialism” by imposing their own rules and standards on tech companies without soliciting input from governments or citizens in the Global South? It is one thing, if EU rules exclusively impact users in its bloc. But the reality is that the DSA will transform how platforms operate globally. The law will define new protections, obligations, and standards for platforms. Citizens in the Global South will be forced to live with the final decisions of European regulators, despite having had little ability to influence these rules along the way.
Internet platforms face a complicated landscape
Internet platforms occupy an increasingly problematic space. On the one hand, there is little question that internet companies face increasing pressure from governments to take down content, hand over user data, and conform to an assorted list of demands (exemplifying the splinternet trend). Freedom House notes that at least 48 countries have passed new rules for tech companies designed to “subdue free expression and gain greater access to private data.” On the other hand, real questions have emerged about how much internet platforms actually care about or prioritize the needs of citizens, outside of core U.S. and European markets. There is growing recognition that big internet platforms, such as Facebook, dedicate scant resources to countering disinformation or political manipulation in Global South markets. Whistleblowers such as Frances Haugen and Sophie Zhang paint a damning picture about how a combination of corporate neglect, underinvestment, and disinterest has allowed hate speech and violent rhetoric to flourish around the globe, from Ethiopia and India, to the Philippines, Israel, and Palestine (Haugen states bluntly that a major reason why she leaked Facebook’s secrets is “because I think the global South is in danger.”).
Of course, tech companies could shift course and decide to work collaboratively with democratic stakeholders – across the world – to voluntarily improve policies on algorithmic transparency, user harm mitigation, or reducing the polarizing effect of misinformation and disinformation. Yet so far, few companies have shown interest in undertaking such efforts. Rather, companies have clung to a “profits over safety” business model and implemented limited changes, and only when compelled by scandals or other outrages.
Findings from the 2022 annual Ranking Digital Rights (RDR) report illustrate this pattern of behavior. The report evaluated 14 of the world’s leading tech companies, such as Meta, Apple, Google, Microsoft, Baidu, and Alibaba, using over 300 factors, from advertising transparency to responsiveness to human rights due diligence. RDR concluded that none of the 14 firms received a passing grade when it came to aligning their policies and practices with human rights obligations under the UN Guiding Principles. It noted: “companies are content to conduct business as usual when the state of the world demands anything but.” This might be an acceptable outcome if the status quo wasn’t so alarming. But given the widespread problems facing the industry and the growing consensus that platforms’ mode of doing business is eroding democratic governance, polluting information environments, and undermining human rights, tech companies’ reluctance to undertake meaningful reforms is troubling. To add insult to injury, the top ranked company in RDR’s index, Twitter, is facing a change in leadership that will potentially place Elon Musk at the helm of the company. If his present statements – such as calling for less content moderation or restoring “free speech” to the platform – are any indication of future action, then we can expect much greater turbulence ahead.
Platforms face turbulent waters ahead. This is partially a result of their own missteps and unforced errors which have galvanized regulators (at least in Europe) to take decisive steps to change how Big Tech does business. But platforms also find themselves subject to increasingly assertive governments, many with authoritarian characteristics, who are seizing opportunities to curb online speech, subdue political discourse, and exert greater control over citizen communication. Undergirding these issues are larger questions about the future viability of so-called “Web 2.0” applications. Given the pathologies facing these platforms, many citizens are exploring the democratic possibilities of Web 3.0 decentralized platforms. While it is too early to predict which Web 3.0 services or applications will take root, it is clear that mounting user discontent with Big Tech’s surveillance capitalism model is energizing new movements for change.