content regulation on and by platforms

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Content Regulation on and by Platforms: Rethinking Internet Governance vis-à-vis the Platformization of the Web is a project funded by a grant of the Internet Policy Observatory of the Annenberg School of Communication, University of Pennsylvania. The research team is composed by myself as Principal Investigator (through the DATACTIVE Ideas Lab) and Vidushi Marda (Article 19/Center for Internet & Society, Bangalore).

We now live in a “post-truth” world, where public opinion is shaped not by objective facts, but rather by appeals to emotion or personal beliefs. Corporate social media are believed to play a key role in this process, which, it is argued, is detrimental to democracy. In the aftermath of the 2016 US presidential election Facebook has faced extensive criticism for the circulation of “fake news” on its wires: these fake reports—most of them prejudicial to the Democratic Party candidate Hillary Clinton— would have influenced the election result. Many observers have called for drastic measures, including curation and fact-checking, which go in the direction of content policing on social media. While self- regulation through, e.g., algorithmic curation already exists on social media platforms, the current direction of the public debate on fake news alarms digital rights activists. Many amongst politicians, experts and the general public, are advocating for content regulation on and by platforms. For example, a recent law adopted in Germany fines social media platforms that fail to promptly delete hate speech or fake news. But are Facebook and its likes merely neutral “pipes”, or media companies subjected to the existing regulation of the press, or what else? What does the proposed algorithmic content regulation mean for human rights and freedom of expression? What implications does it have for internet governance?

This “privatization” of online content regulation goes hand in hand with the “platformization” of the web, or “the rise of the platform as the dominant infrastructural and economic model of the social web” (Helmond, 2015, p. 1). Platformization purports “the extension of social media platforms into the rest of the web and their drive to make external web data ‘platform ready’” (Ibid.). Accordingly, platforms also play an increasingly key role in mediating the exercise of our rights online, specifically freedom of expression. As this shift slowly replaces the norms that have driven internet governance thus far, there is a need to, first, take stock of how these changes may impact digital rights and internet freedoms, and, second, reflect through evidence-based research on possible new approaches to global internet governance policy and advocacy.

This project explores this shift to content regulation on and by platforms. First we ask whether the ongoing platformization of the web is accompanied by adequate safeguards in context of online content regulation. While regulation of content was traditionally carried out by governments and internet governance processes subject to safeguards under national and international law and policy, the private sector is not subject to these same safeguards. Therefore how is content regulation on and by platforms different from "traditional" regulation of content? What impact does it have on digital rights and internet freedoms? What standards and guidelines do these platforms follow, if any? How do these compare with international and national legal frameworks? Second, we ask whether current internet governance frameworks and processes still find relevance in the age of platformization of the internet. Where does content regulation happen today, how, and why? Do multistakeholder decision-making, and civil society participation in particular, provide adequate oversight for private agreements such as contracts? Can content regulation on and by platforms be informed by multistakeholder perspectives?