On 13 October, Facebook announced that they plan to ban holocaust denial across their sites. This is a retreat from the stance they announced two years ago. The decision goes further than current UK legislation, which refuses to put a ban on holocaust denial unless it falls under the provisions that regulate hate speech. The UK’s decision to pursue such a policy is based on the premise that the outright banning of holocaust denial would have a negative impact on the vital right to freedom of speech and expression.
A similar philosophy informed Mark Zuckerberg’s stance two years ago. However, in light of the worrying and escalating numbers of violent anti-Semitic attacks, Zuckerberg has retreated from his previous position and opted to ban such speech on his platform. The decision strikes at the heart of a wider debate over fundamental rights – the right of freedom from discrimination versus the right of freedom of expression. However, it is clear that the unjust persecution of a minority group should rightly be condemned, irrespective of the form this discrimination takes.
This specific announcement should be welcomed, as any active denial of the holocaust should not be condoned under any circumstances. The decision has ramifications on the debate over whether private companies, and specifically the CEOs of these companies, now exert more de facto influence over legislation governing free speech than formal state governments. This is particularly pressing as there are more active Facebook users worldwide than there are people in North America, Europe and Africa combined.
The unchecked power that big-tech exerts over discourse has been demonstrated more than once in past weeks. On 14 October, Twitter was lambasted for failing to allow the publishing of a New York Post article that detailed connections between Joe Biden, Hunter Biden and a chief executive of Ukrainian energy company Burisma. The URL was blocked from being tweeted from any account, an issue CEO Jack Dorsey later apologised for, describing the handling of the issue as ‘not great’ and ‘unacceptable’. The Hunter Biden story was a leading headline internationally and therefore this instance of social-media censorship was brought to the knowledge of many across the globe, yet a supposedly unbiased, a-political social media site damaged the authenticity of this story. Furthermore, this raises concerns over which articles have been banned by the social media site, without being subsequently rectified as the result of a public outcry.
Questions will be asked as to what mandate Facebook and Twitter have to exert such influence over the effective rights of so many people. This will no doubt fuel the flames of disputes over what should or should not be deemed legally acceptable speech. Decisions like these, made by one individual in a company, could soon become the norm as social-media companies wield an ever-increasing hold over our rights on their platforms. Censorship models, developed from undemocratic practices, upset the important process of how a human right will be exercised by swathes of the human population. As Senator Ted Cruz put it to Jack Dorsey in a hearing on Wednesday: ‘who the hell elected you?’ Where a pool of government officials with differing views on sexism, racism, bigotry, capitalism and socialism operate to balance out perspectives on the world and represent a greater percentage of the people’s views, one CEO dictating the rights of billions, presents a real, present and ever-growing threat.
Governments who represent the people should be pressed to act before power over our fundamental rights is centralised in the hands of a frighteningly small group of individuals.
The information in this blog is for general information purposes only and does not purport to be comprehensive or to provide legal advice. Whilst every effort is made to ensure the information and law is current as of the date of publication it should be stressed that, due to the passage of time, this does not necessarily reflect the present legal position. Gherson accepts no responsibility for loss which may arise from accessing or reliance on information contained in this blog. For formal advice on the current law please don’t hesitate to contact Gherson. Legal advice is only provided pursuant to a written agreement, identified as such, and signed by the client and by or on behalf of Gherson.