Germany, France slam social media ban on Trump

President's exile from Twitter, Facebook adds to Europe's worries on big tech's growing power

Twitter suspended President Donald Trump's account last week, after it decided his tweets breached its rules against glorifying violence.
Twitter suspended President Donald Trump's account last week, after it decided his tweets breached its rules against glorifying violence.PHOTO: REUTERS

PARIS/NEW YORK • US President Donald Trump received unexpected backing from Germany and France after he was shut off social media platforms including Twitter and Facebook, extending Europe's battle with big tech.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose relations with Mr Trump have been frosty, objected to the decisions, saying through a spokesman that lawmakers - and not private technology firms - should set the rules governing free speech.

"The Chancellor sees the complete closing down of the account of an elected president as problematic," her chief spokesman Steffen Seibert said on Monday.

Rights such as the freedom of speech "can be interfered with, but by law and within the framework defined by the legislature - not according to a corporate decision".

The German leader's stance was echoed by French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire, who said that the state and not "the digital oligarchy" is responsible for regulations, calling big tech "one of the threats" to democracy.

Europe is increasingly pushing back against the growing influence of big tech firms.

The European Union is in the process of setting up regulation that could give the bloc power to split up platforms if they do not comply with rules.

Twitter last week permanently banned Mr Trump's account, which had 88 million followers, after it decided that his tweets breached its rules against glorifying violence, citing his posts on the riots at the US Capitol.

The move followed similar action by Facebook.

Chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg said at an online forum organised by Reuters on Monday: "Our ban is indefinite. We have said at least through the transition.

"But we have no plans to lift it... This shows that even a president is not above the policies we have."

Asked about criticism that the social media titans exert outsized power, Ms Sandberg said she was in favour of more regulation and hoped to work with the administration of President-elect Joe Biden, who will take office on Jan 20.

"We are a private company and we have a service we provide and it is our responsibility to make sure that service is not used for things it shouldn't be used for, like what happened last Wednesday," she said, referring to the siege of the Capitol by Mr Trump's supporters.

Big tech firms have come under pressure from lawmakers, civil rights advocates and their own employees to do more to moderate content that could lead to violence or illegal activity.

They long avoided such debates by claiming to be content-neutral.

But in the aftermath of the storming of the Capitol, it has become increasingly clear just how much power and responsibility they have over public debate.

Twitter's move drew criticism from some Republicans for quelling the President's right to free speech, while EU commissioner Thierry Breton said the past week's events likely heralded a new era of heavier official control.

Mr Biden has been quoted as criticising the "overwhelming arrogance" of the tech sector's leaders and analysts expect more legal moves to curb their power over the next four years.

Said CMC Markets UK chief analyst Michael Hewson: "These moves, whether you consider them justified or not, could well see them lose further users if they become seen as arbiters of what is considered politically correct or acceptable."

Digital lawyer Christiane Feral-Schuhl said that what the platforms are doing is tantamount to "censorship couched in (their) general conditions".

Mr Breton wrote in a column for Politico: "The fact that a CEO can pull the plug on POTUS' (President of the United States) loudspeaker without any checks and balances is perplexing.

"It is not only confirmation of the power of these platforms, but it also displays deep weaknesses in the way our society is organised in the digital space."

BLOOMBERG, REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 13, 2021, with the headline 'Germany, France slam social media ban on Trump'. Print Edition | Subscribe