Triple Threat: Trump sues Google, Twitter and Facebook alleging ‘censorship’

August 12, 2021

4 min read

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What's going on here?

Former US president Donald Trump has announced that he is suing Big Tech companies Google, Twitter and Facebook, as well as their chief executives, in lawsuits alleging that he is the victim of “censorship”.

What does this mean?

In an online setting, censorship is the suppression or prohibition of content considered to be harmful or sensitive. Social media platforms often remove posts they believe meet these criteria based on their own values and terms of use. It is on this basis that Trump is filing the lawsuits as he claims that his right to free speech, as enshrined under the First Amendment in the US Constitution, has been violated following the suspension of his accounts. Twitter and YouTube banned Trump permanently following the Capitol Hill riots on Wednesday 6 January 2021 due to “the risk of further incitement of violence”, whilst Facebook has only implemented a two-year ban.

The move has prevented Trump from carrying out the impulsive tweeting that became a hallmark of his presidency – a key facet of Trumpism which enabled him to speak directly to his followers at the click of a button. Trump is now seeking a crackdown on what he deems “Big Tech censorship”, as well as the restoration of his accounts and the imposition of punitive damages (compensation intended to punish the defendant and to deter others from acting similarly in the future). The lawsuit is being supported by America First Policy Institute, a newly established non-profit dedicated to promoting Trump’s policies.

What's the big picture effect?

The lawsuits are the latest in a Republican trend of asking judges to rein in Silicon Valley’s policing of online speech. Throughout his presidency, Trump and many of his Republican allies argued that the Big Tech platforms were biased against conservatives, leading to attempts at legislation and regulation. Now, the litigation reflects a serious U-turn in their struggle with the tech industry as they seek to turn to the courts. Katie Harbath, a former Facebook public policy director who served as a staffer on Trump ally Rudy Giuliani’s 2008 campaign, came out to support the legal effort: “We need to start having precedent around some of these types of issues to actually go through the proper due process of law”. With the Republicans in Congress, having recently released a memo describing their plan to take on Big Tech, which involves an antitrust “break up” of the companies, their tussle is likely to intensify. But without a majority in either house, they will struggle to do so.

The tech industry’s ongoing struggle with the US Government may also have implications for its tussle across the Atlantic as European governments grow more determined to regulate the internet. Last year, the EU published its first draft of the landmark Digital Services Act, designed to outline the responsibilities of Big Tech. The UK Government is also making similar moves with the recent publication of its Draft Online Safety Bill which will impose a “duty of care” on social media companies to remove “harmful content”. Given the importance of these proposed legal changes, law firms specialising in internet or technology-related litigation will have to advise companies that are likely to be affected by such legislation to follow developments closely. Firms specialising in competition law will also be needed in the years to come. This is because many politicians envisage antitrust “break up” measures as the most effective way of regulating Big Tech censorship and their monopolisation of the tech market.

 So what does this mean for the role of Big Tech in internet censorship moving forward? As the world becomes ever more connected, there is growing disagreement over which types of content should be censored. Many feel that legislation designed to protect users will only incentivise tech firms to “over-censor”, leading to the removal of legal content. Speaking on the Online Safety Bill, MP David Davis said “lobby groups will be able to push social networks to take down content they view as not politically correct, even though the content is legal”. This is corroborated by a 2021 report carried out by non-profit governmental organisation Freedom House which found that 22.4% of respondents wanted extreme conservative political ideologies censored whilst only 19.2% wanted extreme liberal political ideologies censored. The main issue facing Big Tech, therefore, is being able to refrain from becoming politicised as well as finding the appropriate level of censorship on their platforms. Whatever that is, it is clear Trump believes that the current level is too excessive for his liking. Failure on Big Tech’s part, however, will most likely lead to the robust antitrust breakup of companies.

Report written by Charlie Parkman

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