Why I Decided To Regulate
Big Tech In Poland
DEPUTY MINISTER OF JUSTICE
AND MEMBER OF PARLIAMENT, POLAND
ON 1/21/21 NEWSWEEK
In 1644 John Milton published Areopagitica, his famous plea for the liberty of printing without the restraints imposed by government licensing. “Give me the liberty to know, to utter and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties,” wrote Milton. Fittingly, he published the speech without a license.
Today, the threat that Milton faced has changed. Gatekeeping is no longer performed by states, but by Big Tech companies. Like the printing press, the internet initially brought a rapid decentralization and ground-level networking of human communication. But after the initial freedom of the World Wide Web, “web 2.0” made us all reliant on centralized operators—Big Tech companies that amass our data for profit.
In Poland, we have watched with alarm as a consortium of ever more powerful, monopolistic Big Tech companies have done what was once unthinkable: de-platforming a sitting U.S. president. For us, this example—which has alarmed presidents and prime ministers across Europe and, indeed, the world—is merely the straw that broke the camel’s back. The debate about who and what social media companies should be able to ban is now firmly in the public eye.
For the citizens of Poland and other countries that value true democratic accountability, we have concluded that this situation can go on no longer. As media across the world have noted, Poland has proposed a law establishing a “Freedom of Speech Council” to guarantee that Polish citizens are not arbitrarily manipulated by Big Tech companies.
At the heart of our proposal is an effort to guarantee Polish citizens their constitutional right to freedom of speech on major internet platforms. The Freedom of Speech Council we propose will decide what Big Tech can and cannot remove from its platforms, lest they attempt to impose restrictions beyond the laws that govern and protect speech in Poland. Far from a partisan or factional initiative, the Freedom of Speech Council will convoke members for six-year terms after they have been nominated by a three-fifths majority in Parliament.
The remedy befits the magnitude of the problem. Two thousand years ago, the Roman comedian Juvenal asked, “Who will watch the watchers?” In the case of Big Tech, I believe that the answer lies with the people—not nameless moderators operating with no transparency and no ability for recourse. The Freedom Act I have proposed in Poland is not only a law that would guarantee Polish citizens their constitutional right to freedom of speech, but it provides a blueprint for how to confront the problem of unaccountable speech regulation by Silicon Valley oligarchs.
Poland suffered under Soviet-imposed Communism for 45 years and endured decades of censorship. We are particularly sensitive to any attempts to curtail freedom of speech: We do not seek the power to remove any content from social media; rather, we simply want to ensure that lawful content is not removed. The problem of social media censorship is much more systemic than the mere instance, however monumental it may be, of the permanent de-platforming of a sitting U.S. president. Ordinary citizens are finding their content regulated by invisible agents behind computers far, far away.
At its best, the internet in its decentralized form provided an online “Speakers Corner,” making it a truly democratizing force. The early internet gave equal access to those wishing to talk, exchange, discuss and debate their views. As we have increasingly shifted our political debates into the online realm, however, we have “digitized” all our speech. Big Tech companies arrested the democratization of speech, instead privatizing and centralizing it. Whether we like it or not, these tech companies have a monopoly on the online forum, or at least on large segments of it.
For years, conservatives suggested that Silicon Valley holds a strong liberal bias, and that it is involved in online censorship. Big Tech was said to ban users, impose “shadow bans” and suppress content. These claims have often been dismissed and ridiculed—and Big Tech’s lack of transparency, its lack of effective means of contesting content moderation decisions and its absence of clear rules have only compounded conservatives’ uphill battle.
The political volatility in the United States may obscure what Big Tech has now done. But viewed from abroad, the rapid imposition of a censorship regime by virtually every social media company—from Twitter, Facebook, Twitch, YouTube, Reddit and Instagram to Snapchat and many providers of internet infrastructure—has now put the world on alert.
Big Tech’s decisions with respect to President Trump have give governments around the world cause for concern. Big Tech’s power and overreach are inspiring leaders to guarantee their citizens’ rights in the face of an encroaching giant.
Whether these companies acted in a coordinated manner or not is irrelevant. They effectively proved that they are indeed a monopolistic cartel that defines and controls free speech online.
Sadly, for years we have all been told that private companies are entitled to act as they please. “If you don’t like our social network, just build your own,” goes the well-worn quip. But the rapid exclusion of Parler has finished off this argument once and for all. With Amazon refusing to host Parler, and Apple and Google removing the app from their app stores, Big Tech killed the competition before it could even meaningfully take off.
There is a compelling argument to be made that social media giants are actually “natural monopolies.” While the highest degree of efficiency is perhaps sometimes achieved under one operator in a given marketplace, it is essential that such sole operators be properly regulated. Viewing social media as a public utility, we acknowledge that it has become an essential communication tool—just as electric, water and phone utilities operate in the public interest and with democratically accountable oversight.
Guaranteeing citizens recourse against Big Tech arbitrariness is a first step in the direction of orienting the internet toward the public good. Polish citizens—and, hopefully, citizens of other countries as well—will soon be able to conduct themselves responsibly online without fearing that an unknown, unseen censor will suspend their account in the middle of the night.
The arbitrary exclusion of voices, and even companies, from the internet makes it clearer than ever that social media companies are not just platforms, but publishers—and not merely publishers either, but monopoly gatekeepers for the rapid transmission of information to the public at large.
I cannot help but imagine how ironic Milton would find it, centuries after he defended freedom of speech against an intrusive parliament, to see that freedom in need of defense against private monopolies. Today, it is the state—not its partisan rulers, but the community as a whole—that needs to protect citizens from Silicon Valley–imposed censorship.
Take it from us. We Poles have seen aggressive censorship, and much worse, in the last century. It is time for democratic governments all across the globe to protect their citizens and restore the internet as a place for lawful, public discussion.
Sebastian Kaleta is a deputy minister of justice in the Polish government and a member of the Polish parliament.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.