A Race to the Bottom on Internet Censorship

Liberal democracies are passing online speech laws. They're inspiring autocrats.

Nothing more sharply differentiates liberal democracies from authoritarian regimes than the former’s commitment to freedom of expression. Despite controlling vast bureaucracies with near-infinite resources and overwhelming coercive powers, democratic governments generally accept that their actions are scrutinized, criticized, and ridiculed by the media, opposition, and ordinary citizens. Outspoken critics of Boris Johnson or Emmanuel Macron don’t have to zealously guard their teacups for fear of being poisoned, as happens routinely to critics of Vladimir Putin in Russia, nor are they at risk of being dismembered by a death squad, as happened to Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

In the past decade or so, however, the differences between liberal and authoritarian approaches have started to blur at the edges when it comes to regulating online speech. As late as the Arab Spring, most democracies welcomed the digital age as a triumph of liberal ideals. Supercharged by technology, free speech would render old-fashioned censorship obsolete and usher in a fourth wave of democratization. Yet, since the twin shocks of Brexit and the 2016 U.S. presidential election, democracies are more likely to view unmediated online free speech as a threat to democracy and an advantage to its enemies. Accordingly, democracies have started to respond with regulations intended to reimpose some degree of top-down control of the online public sphere.

The imposition of heavy penalties on social media platforms for failing to remove certain online content was initiated by the German Network Enforcement Act of 2017. This “Digital Berlin Wall” was intended to protect democracy by fining social media companies that permitted the spread of “clearly illegal” content on their platforms. Soon, however, it became the global blueprint for online censorship. By 2020, the German model had spread to over 25 countries worldwide, including a raft of authoritarian states like Belarus, Turkey, Venezuela, and Russia, many of whom explicitly mention the German precedent as inspiration and justification. Unfortunately, European democracies have not been discouraged by this development and more are set to follow the German route with various tweaks and modifications.

The U.K. Government’s proposed Online Safety Bill is a particularly egregious example of the lengths to which modern democracies are willing to go to rein in the torrent of disinformation, hatred, and extremism online.

Briefly put, the bill would not only impose a duty of care on internet companies to protect users from illegal content, such as child sexual abuse, terrorist content, or other “priority illegal content” like racist abuse. It would, perhaps more disconcertingly, require similar scrutiny for content that, while harmful, is not illegal on its face. Companies and social media platforms might be fined up to £18 million or 10% of annual global revenue (whichever is higher) if they fail to remove such content.