The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

E.U.’s top digital enforcer says Twitter’s Trump ban was response to ‘extreme situation’

European Commission Vice President Margrethe Vestager speaks at a news conference in Brussels on Dec. 15, 2020. (Olivier Matthys/Pool/AFP/Getty Images)
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Europe's top digital enforcer said Tuesday that she didn't understand why Twitter, Facebook and other social media networks had waited so long to bar President Trump from their platforms — but she also said that a broad proposal in Europe to rein in digital giants would give banned users the opportunity to appeal such decisions.

In an interview with The Washington Post, European Commission Vice President Margrethe Vestager expressed alarm about the attack last week on the U.S. Capitol by a mob of Trump supporters and said of the planned transition of power on Inauguration Day: “I really, really hope that it will go well.”

For years, Trump’s Twitter account had gone unchecked as he broadcast a torrent of falsehoods that culminated in an attempt by his backers to use violence to overturn the results of a democratic election. The drama in Washington since the storming of the Capitol has helped crystallize some of the competing forces that Vestager has long tried to address to curtail the power of big tech companies. E.U. leaders say the decisions about how to address those challenges should rest in the hands of societies, not unaccountable corporate leaders at Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere.

These are the platforms that have banned Trump and his allies

“It seems after all these years of Trumpism and all the fact-
checking of his statements, then five minutes to 12, or one minute to 12, or 30 seconds to 12, to ban him, that seems a little bit, ‘Why haven’t you done more before?’ ” said Vestager, arguably the world’s most powerful enforcer of life in the digital world. “If you have a situation where someone is doing something that they shouldn’t do, you may take down their post, but you have to engage with them.”

Nonetheless, Vestager acknowledged, Trump’s incitement was extraordinary, and the situation may have called for extraordinary responses, as well.

“This is, of course, the most extreme of extreme situations, that the president of the United States is inciting people to go toward Congress,” she said. “So I completely accept that this is an extreme situation, and lines have been crossed.”

Buffeted by the Trump presidency and by their own domestic challenges with extremism, Vestager and other top E.U. officials last month proposed rules that would give governments more power to fight disinformation and to force big tech companies to police content that violates European laws. Companies would also need to make more public the algorithms that make decisions about what content to highlight.

The proposals — a pair of bills named the Digital Services Act and the Digital Markets Act — represent the most ambitious effort to regain regulatory control of the digital world since it became an essential part of modern life.

E.U. proposes sweeping new rules for online business that could force fundamental changes for digital giants

Because European societies are generally more accepting than the United States of governmental regulation, the European Union has in recent years policed the actions of tech giants far more aggressively than U.S. regulators. And because the bloc’s 450 million people constitute a vast and rich market, its decisions often reverberate far beyond European borders.

The new proposals, which are subject to discussion, could become law within about two years.

“The spread of lies, and the difficulties in discussing whether things are true or not, becomes increasingly difficult if our reality becomes privatized because public space is empty, and we are each in our own feed,” Vestager said.

And though she said that the European Union was wary of regulating content, she expressed puzzlement about cultural differences between the United States and Europe over what was permissible online.

“I'm from Denmark, and we have a quite liberal view when it comes, for instance, to nudity,” she said. “It’s just thought-provoking that you can blatantly lie about essentials in your democracy, but you cannot show a nipple.”

Vestager’s views appeared to be more nuanced than some of her fellow European leaders, who have questioned Twitter’s move against Trump. Many Europeans have spent Trump’s term astounded by his tweets, but some policymakers are also cautious about the implications of the leaders of private corporations making unilateral decisions about what is acceptable speech from presidents and prime ministers.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said through a spokesman Monday that decisions about the freedom of opinion should be made by laws, “not according to a decision by the management of social media platforms.”

“From this angle, the chancellor considers it problematic that the accounts of the U.S. president have now been permanently blocked,” said Steffen Seibert, the spokesman.

French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire echoed that concern, telling France Inter radio Monday that “what shocks me is that it was Twitter that shut it down. The regulation of digital giants can’t and shouldn’t be done by the digital oligarchy itself.”

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In the interview with The Post, Vestager said that she hoped that the start of the Biden administration would be an opportunity to have a transatlantic discussion about the relationship between democratic societies and digital giants.

Europe and the United States are also due for a discussion about relations with China and the role of Chinese companies in developing the digital world of the future.

The Trump administration has led an aggressive campaign against the use of technology made by Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei as the world builds next-generation 5G data networks. President-elect Joe Biden is expected to continue that effort, which has yielded mixed results in Europe even though policymakers increasingly consider the Chinese components a security threat. Two weeks ago, the European Union struck a trade deal with China despite U.S. reservations, adding to the transatlantic divisions.

After Biden’s election victory in November, the European Commission proposed creating an E.U.-U.S. council to discuss digital issues, in the hope of sparking a more collaborative approach than in the contentious years under Trump.

“We see a lot of similarities in our approach when it comes to technology, when it comes to security, when it comes to open democracy,” Vestager said. “For us, the important thing is that we share some of the same aims, and then we can find ways of dealing with it, because the U.S. and the European Union are some of the world’s biggest democracies.”

She added: “That ought to be the starting point for something also geopolitically good.”

Birnbaum reported from Riga, Latvia.

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