On Sunday evening, 60 Minutes
correspondent Lesley Stahl sat down with YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki to voice a now-familiar critique
: YouTube allows too many dangerous and disturbing videos to remain on the site. She brings up a distorted video of Rep. Nancy Pelosi that falsely describes her as drunk; altered copies of the Christchurch shooting video, quack science, and misleading political ads, among other questionable videos found on the site. It leads to the following exchange:
Lesley Stahl: The struggle for Wojcicki is policing the site, while keeping YouTube an open platform.
Susan Wojcicki: You can go too far and that can become censorship. And so we have been working really hard to figure out what’s the right way to balance responsibility with freedom of speech.
Stahl: But the private sector is not legally beholden to the First Amendment.
As it so happens, some countries are
trying to make tech platforms legally beholden to police speech according to national laws. One of them is Singapore, where in October a new law went into effect with the stated purpose of fighting “fake news.” James Griffith wrote about the law for CNN
Under the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill, it is now illegal to spread “false statements of fact” under circumstances in which that information is deemed “prejudicial” to Singapore’s security, public safety, “public tranquility,” or to the “friendly relations of Singapore with other countries,” among numerous other topics.
Government ministers can decide whether to order something deemed fake news to be taken down, or for a correction to be put up alongside it. They can also order technology companies such as Facebook and Google — both of which opposed the bill during its fast-tracked process through parliament — to block accounts or sites spreading false information.
Those government ministers wasted little time in enforcing that law, taking action twice in the past week. And if you had to guess, what type of social media post would spur them into action the fastest? Would it be a post that spread hate speech or promoted violence? Would it be a post that spread harmful misinformation, such as a false election date intended to mislead voters? Or would it be a post that criticized the government?
If you guessed No. 3, then you’ve been paying attention to the arguments that every single critic of this law has made since it was first proposed. Here’s Griffiths again, from Saturday
One offending item was a Facebook post
by an opposition politician that questioned the governance of the city-state’s sovereign wealth funds and some of their investment decisions. The other post
was published by an Australia-based blog that claimed police had arrested a “whistleblower” who “exposed” a political candidate’s religious affiliations.
In both cases, Singapore officials ordered the accused to include the government’s rebuttal at the top of their posts. The government announcements were accompanied by screenshots of the original posts with the word “FALSE” stamped in giant letters across them.
Facebook said on Saturday it had issued a correction notice on a user’s post at the request of the Singapore government, but called for a measured approach to the implementation of a new “fake news” law in the city-state.
“Facebook is legally required to tell you that the Singapore government says this post has false information,” said the notice, which is visible only to Singapore users.
It’s hard to think of a more dismissive way of phrasing that, short of maybe describing the Singapore government as a sniveling mosh pit of baby clowns. But that description would also presumably be in violation of the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill.
Last week, Sacha Baron Cohen made the case —although not in so many words — that the United States needs its own version of Singapore’s law
. Like Stahl, he questioned the value of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. And he suggested that tech platforms should be held liable for what their users post. He did so out of legitimate concern over the dangerous misinformation and hate speech that really does spread on these platforms — and out of frustration that they are currently not held accountable for any of it.
But the lesson of Singapore is that the fake-news law you want probably won’t be used in the way that you want. In fact, it may be used in ways that you don’t want at all!
Granted, just because one country implemented a law this way doesn’t mean that Western democracies will. But if you think that they won’t … why, exactly? In the United States, the First Amendment may offer some protections to average citizens who want to criticize their government online. Others won’t be as lucky. And as the FOSTA-SESTA debacle
showed, even the United States is not immune to terrible consequences from noble-sounding speech regulation.
As the debate over Section 230 rages on, that’s something we ought to keep in mind.