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View from Brussels: Why Trump’s Twitter takedown marks a turning point

US President Donald Trump’s social media bans, prompted by his involvement in the violent assault on Capitol Hill last week, have ramped up the ongoing debate in Europe about what to do with companies like Facebook and Twitter.

Trump’s social media banishment has seen the outgoing commander-in-chief ousted from his favourite social media platforms, as well as Instagram, Snapchat, Pinterest and more. That has provoked a fierce discussion about differentiating between free speech and hate speech.

The EU is currently putting together new laws that will govern digital services and markets, with the aim of “making illegal online, what is illegal offline”, according to high-ranking official Thierry Breton, France’s European Commissioner.

Breton has labelled the Capitol Hill assault "the 9/11 moment for social media", suggesting that the events of 6 January 2021 mark a 'before and after' moment for how digital platforms should be treated by regulators.

Trump’s bans - justified by the firms as necessary because his tweets and posts risked inciting more violence - show that Twitter et al have “recognised their responsibility, duty and means to prevent the spread of illegal viral content”, Breton wrote in an opinion piece.

“They can no longer hide their responsibility toward society by arguing that they merely provide hosting services,” he added. “The fact that a CEO can pull the plug on POTUS’s 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.”

Manfred Weber, the head of Germany's European People’s Party, agrees with that stance: “We cannot leave it to American Big Tech companies to decide how we do and do not discuss, what can and cannot be said in a democratic discourse.”

According to Weber, who leads the biggest party in the European Parliament, “a stricter regulatory approach” is needed. The European Commission recently published its plans for just that and tough negotiations loom large this year with governments and MEPs.

The events in the US have fuelled the EU’s long-gestating argument that big firms cannot be relied on to regulate themselves and that Trump’s bans are effectively an admission by the likes of Facebook that they are publishers, rather than just hosts of content.

If the Commission’s Digital Service Act is signed into law just as the EU executive plans, then online platforms will be given clearer obligations, while enforcement bodies will be granted extra powers to ensure the rules are respected.

The financial penalties for Big Tech could be huge: up to 6 per cent of global turnover in a worst-case scenario, which could equate to billions of euros in fines.

Breton has already offered the hand of friendship to the incoming administration of Joe Biden, as the EU wants its digital strategy to be a model to which other countries can adopt and adhere.

Much like climate policy, Brussels appreciates that if only the EU makes an effort to stick to stricter standards then little will be achieved. It requires international buy-in to work. Given the global condemnation of Trump’s insurrection, that quest has arguably become a little easier to pull off.

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