Wednesday, January 13, 2021

The Twitter Purge

In the wake of Donald Trump's incitement of an assault on the US capitol, Twitter finally enforced its terms of service and suspended his account. They've since followed that up with action against prominent QAnon accounts and Trumpers, including in New Zealand. I'm not unhappy with this: Trump regularly violated Twitter's TOS, and the surprising thing is that he wasn't banned sooner. Likewise the NZ accounts highlighted are ones with long histories of violations and suspensions. At the same time, I'm a little bit uncomfortable about the amount of power a handful of US-based dotcoms now have over the global conversation. And while at the moment they're using it against violent extremists, you don't have to think too hard to see how this power could be abused to stifle criticism, interfere in elections, and undermine democracy to the advantage of these dotcoms' billionaire owners.

Many people will argue that Twitter is a private company, so can do what it likes. This isn't government censorship, after all. But private power is still power, and therefore needs to be regulated and controlled to prevent abuse. That's why we have a Human Rights Act, which prevents private bodies using their private power for discriminatory purposes. And its why our Bill of Rights Act applies to anyone performing a public function - a clause which has been regularly used to review and overturn the decisions of private broadcasters on who may participate in election debates. As for what we should be doing about this particular form of power, the Spinoff article quotes the NZ Council for Civil Liberties' Thomas Beagle as suggesting mandatory transparency and appeal processes. That would seem to be a good start.