Twitter, Facebook et al say they obey "local laws". So what happens when Trump orders them to censor?
On Monday, the New York Times reported yet another fight between Facebook and authorities in Germany.
The subject this time: A series of anti-semitic posts published by far right groups on the anniversary of Kristallnacht, identifying the locations of Jewish-owned businesses.
Facebook initially refused to delete the posts, citing its free speech policies. Later, as the Times reports, the company relented after an outcry from lawmakers and the German media.
“We recognize that this is a work in progress,” Richard Allen, Facebook’s director of policy in Europe, said in an interview. “It was hate speech, and it should have been taken down.”
Last week, I wrote about Facebook’s fear of Germany. The country’s German Justice Minister has already threatened to force Facebook to comply with its media laws, which would see the social network fined for allowing fake news to be published and shared. Germany is hugely influential in influencing wider European law and, as I wrote, a fight with Germany could very quickly become a potentially very costly fight with EU regulators. If Mark Zuckerberg is any doubt how bad that could be, he need only ask Microsoft, Google and, most recently, Uber.
But this latest tussle highlights another dilemma for the entire tech industry, not just Facebook, when President Trump takes office in January.
Tech companies have generally accepted, if grudgingly, that they are bound by the local laws of countries in which they operate. When eBay operates in France and Germany it accepts that the law of the land prevents the sale of Nazi memorabilia. Similarly, Amazon doesn’t sell certain Nazi-related books and products in those territories. Twitter regularly deletes content from foreign accounts that breaks local laws and Yahoo has handed over user data to the Chinese government.
Most recently, Facebook was reported to have agreed to build censorship tools in order to operate in China.
In all of these cases, the tech companies insist they have no choice. If they want to do business in China or Germany of anywhere else outside of the US then they are bound by those countries’ laws. Whether censoring political speech or handing over user data, the mantra is always the same: We respect local laws, we respect local laws.
So what happens if President Trump keeps his promise to tighten up the “local laws” in America, specifically those around free speech and data sharing? Yesterday Bloomberg reported that Trump is poised to give new surveillance powers to the NSA and FBI. On the same day, Trump himself threatened to revoke the citizenship of anyone who exercises their constitutionally protected right to burn the American flag.
If those changes become “local law” in America, will Twitter, Facebook, Yahoo et al agree to comply, just like they comply with other despots in other “less important” (to them) countries?
Or will they stand and fight on behalf of their users at home in a way they so often fail to do overseas?
That question is a hypothetical one until inauguration day. Which means Zuckerberg, Dorsey and co have less than two months to decide whose side they’re on.