Public and private discourse online is mediated through global web-based platforms. The platforms hold, enable and carry local and hyper-local conversations between local actors with local consequences. Although online harmful speech has local dimensions, the usual local modes of intervention for harmful speech are no longer viable. Global intervention is difficult since context is often a significant factor in identifying harmful speech. The internet has disrupted regulation of harmful speech and regulators are pushing back. This has an unfortunate effect on freedom of expression while failing to address the problem of harmful speech adequately. This essay highlights the problems that arise from companies' knee jerk responses to the consequences of harmful speech. It offers a way forward.
Perhaps the most comprehensive regime of speech regulation in U.S. history was enacted over the past year. It was put into place by private companies, not the government. In response to criticisms following the 2016 U.S. election, Facebook and Google have altered their algorithms, advertising policies, terms of service, and even mission statements — all in the service of cleaning up the pollution of the information ecosystem. We have only begun to come to grips with what this private outsourcing of speech regulation means for democracy and the marketplace of ideas, both in the United States and around the world. This paper explores these new rules and the costs and benefits of these corporations' attempts to enforce measures to combat disinformation and other democracy-threatening speech. It concludes by mapping a way forward, suggesting how governments and media companies should divide responsibility for combating the kind of speech that undermines democracy.