After a thought-provoking lecture by Marietje Schaake, organised by the Centre for European Research in Maastricht (CERiM) on January 12th, Studio Europa Maastricht sat down with their postdoctoral researcher Catalina Goanta to continue the conversation.
Goanta’s current research addresses decentralisation and platform governance, particularly the regulation of social media influencers. Keep reading to find out more on Goanta’s views concerning Twitter banning Trump, the compliance and enforcement of regulations related to the business practices of social media platforms as well as on the challenges of conducting research on these topics.
Twitter and Trump
A lot has been said about Twitter banning Donald Trump from their platform. Chancellor Merkel expressed her concerns over this decision. Her spokesperson Steffen Seibert, said that freedom of opinion is a fundamental right of “elementary significance” and added, “This fundamental right can be intervened in but only according to law and within the framework defined by legislators – not according to a decision by the management of social media platforms”.
But freedom of expression is a contentious issue in itself. “Freedom of expression is not absolute and we already have a variety of laws that can limit this freedom”, says Goanta. “Freedom of expression ends where regulations are imposed by the EU and its member states”, she adds. As one example among many, Goanta refers to the Audio Visual Media Services Directive (AVMSD) that aims at protecting the privacy and public interest of children and that forbids companies from advertising things that are detrimental to children (for instance, fast food).
Working with existing rules
In reality, however, these types of regulations are poorly implemented, complied with or enforced by tech platforms. “We have a massive blind spot in terms of really understanding and mapping the extensive and exhaustive regulations that exist on the European and national level”, says Goanta.
With regards to Trump’s Twitter ban, Goanta explains that there is a difference between the questions of whether Twitter can or whether it should ban elected politicians such as former president Trump. The former question is easy to answer since there are no laws that forbid tech platforms from curtailing the channels of elected politicians. The question of whether Twitter should or shouldn’t have banned Trump, is one that can only be answered by interpreting conflicting laws on freedom of expression and laws that prohibit for example the storming of the Capitol in Washington. “That’s what we need courts for. Courts are there to interpret the Tweets of Trump and to argue whether his Tweets have led to the storming of the Capitol, which is a crime”, claims Goanta.
The problem is that even countries with generally good access to judicial systems, such as the Netherlands, do not have the capacity to process all possible litigations from social media platforms. According to Goanta, it is therefore important to rethink judicial systems, to integrate compliance systems within tech companies and to work with the authorities that are already in place.
Rethinking authorities and judicial systems
“To enforce the rules that we have and make, we need stronger competition authorities, data protection authorities and consumer protection authorities. These authorities need to sanction or even bring cases to court”. Goanta explains that there is a significant lack of knowhow and capacity within these authorities.
In terms of rethinking the judicial system, Goanta says that we need to think about “how to bring together access to justice from the traditional system and capacity building within tech companies to comply with the rules”. She adds, “we could for example think of new ways to link content regulation to the decisions and regulations that need to be respected as well as the existing jurisdiction”.
Schaake stated in het lecture that whilst the EU is ahead of the game in terms of creating new regulation, this has also led to highly fragmented policies. Goanta agrees with Schaake that it is a little bit of a mess.
So many rules already cover the content and business practices on and of social media platforms. “Regulations are extremely fragmented and often sector based. The Digital Single Market Act less so, but there is for example no coherence between those new legislative initiatives by the European Commission and other consumer law”. According to Goanta, the EU should, therefore, find a more structured and systematic way to address these issues.
We finished the conversation by talking about Goanta’s research practices. Schaake mentioned the huge knowledge gap between researchers from data science and political science, for example. As a legal researcher working on the interdisciplinary Maastricht Working on Europe (MWOE) research agenda, Goanta is very familiar with this complex collaboration with data scientists and she admits that it is “a bit of journey”. However, she adds “it is one worth taking since academic research can facilitate public interest technology”.
Public interest technology entails that you have technologists working on policies such the enforcement of laws by the use of technology. “It is important to develop this at universities because universities can be repositories of public trust and scientific rigor in academia can safeguard public interest”, says Goanta. Moreover, whilst platforms have long been developing their own research departments, Goanta says we have to bear in mind that “these companies do not do research in public interest and instead aim at optimising profit”. She adds that it is, therefore, very important that these platforms (are forced to) disclose information on their content regulation and business practices to both public authorities and researchers (for whom this is often not the case).