Analysis: the Polish way on freedom of speech legislation

Poland’s Justice Ministry is preparing legislation to protect freedom of speech on the internet. It aims to give users the right to appeal against their posts being removed. The legislation would prevent social media platforms from blocking users or removing content if these are not in contravention of Polish law.

According to the draft proposals should content or an account be blocked, the user would be able to appeal to a new body called the Freedom of Speech Council. This body would consist of five members elected by a three-fifths majority in the Lower House of Parliament, ensuring that there is consensus across more than just the ruling party on the membership of such a body.

The proposal follows PM Mateusz Morawiecki’s Facebook post on Tuesday in which he argued that social media platform owners “cannot operate above the law”. Poland’s head of government said that “we will do everything to define a framework for how Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other similar platforms function... We do not agree, we cannot agree to censorship”. He added that “algorithms or the owners of corporate giants cannot decide for us which views are right and which are wrong.”

Trump storm

An international storm has raged ever since US President Donald Trump’s accounts on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram were suspended following violent protests at the Capitol last week. The suspensions have raised the issue of the power of Big Tech companies to cancel and block content.

Jack Dorsey, the chief executive of Twitter, said this week that it was the “right decision” to ban Mr Trump from the social media platform, but warned that it sets a dangerous precedent. “Having to take these actions fragment the public conversation,” he said. “They divide us. They limit the potential for clarification, redemption, and learning. And sets a precedent I feel is dangerous: the power an individual or corporation has over a part of the global public conversation.”

The German Chancellor Angela Merke, Polish Prime Minister, European Commissioner Thierry Breton and Russian opposition leader Aleksey Navalny have all questioned the decisions taken by the media platforms. Social media platforms have been accused by conservative and nationalist political forces of being biased against them, with most of the bans and suspensions affecting the political right rather than the left.

The debate over regulation

The European Commission and European Parliament are both examining the possibility of regulation of the digital space. However, there is concern in Poland and among conservative opinion that the regulatory framework which could emerge from the EU be too restrictive and weighed heavily against conservative views.

Big Tech company owners and executives tend to support liberal views on cultural issues. Pressure from well organised campaigners for causes such as LGBT rights, combating racism and abortion on demand has resulted in restrictions on those organisations and individuals who opposed these campaigns.

The European Parliament and Commission are also dominated by liberal and left of centre views sympathetic to multiculturalism and gender based approaches. If the internet is to be policed to exclude opponents of these phenomena under the guise of combating ‘hate speech’ political discourse, the majority of which takes place on social media in the modern world, would be severely restricted.

Poland is proposing another way. It wants its own regulations and those of the EU to err on the side of freedom of speech. Big Tech platforms would have to justify their actions and social media users would have an easily identifiable and available redress mechanism.

The companies themselves may welcome such a set up as it would free them from the need to make sensitive decisions, leaving them to concentrate on improving services and getting on with making money from advertising and data gathering. Since these companies are corporate entities offering a public service, a degree of regulation seems inevitable.