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Switzerland works differently with social media laws

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Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg will grill in front of the US Congress in 2018. Xinhua News Agency All rights reserved
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Freedom of expression series, episode 10:

Fake news, incitement to violence, conspiracy theories, censorship: social media giants have a lot of power – too much according to critics. Is it possible to make the internet a boon for democracy again? Switzerland relies on the judgment of individual users. A global comparison.

This content was published on May 6, 2021 – 9:00 am

Jonas Glatthard

Studied political science and film studies at the University of Zurich, where he discovered his passion for data analysis and international cinema. He came to SWI swissinfo.ch in 2020 to work on data-driven stories and visualizations.

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Social media platforms have become indispensable channels for public debate, but are rarely seen as a pure benefit for democracy. Rather, they are more likely to be viewed as conveyors of fake news, conspiracy theories and hatred.

In 2017, the Swiss government came to the conclusion that no new regulation with regard to social media is necessary.

But there are growing fears that private tech companies are wielding too much power over – and with – social media and suppressing unpleasant voices.

“These companies have tremendous power. You have too much power, especially the big players – the social media platforms and search engines. You can influence not only consumers, but also voters on a large scale. This power has to be tackled now because it is only becoming clearer, ”warns cyber expert Marietje Schaake in an interview with SWI swissinfo.ch about the dangers of unregulated social media.

Make your voice heard!

SWI #freedomofexpression series

In principle, everything should be crystal clear. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966) state that “everyone has the right to freedom of expression; this right includes the freedom to seek, receive and pass on information and ideas of all kinds irrespective of the boundaries orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art or any other medium of one’s choice. ” freedom of expression as a legally binding right (Article 10). Switzerland enshrines this fundamental freedom in Article 16 of its 1999 constitution.

In practice, however, much remains controversial. Many governments around the world do not protect the right to freedom of expression, but increasingly undermine it. In other parts of the world, individuals and groups use the term “freedom of expression” to justify discriminatory and hateful speech. But while it is a universal right, freedom of expression is not an absolute right. Ensuring and applying it is always a tightrope walk.

In a new series from SWI swissinfo.ch, we are addressing these various aspects, challenges, opinions and developments relating to freedom of expression in Switzerland and around the world. We offer citizens a platform to express their opinion on this topic, offer analyzes by renowned scientists and shed light on local and global developments. And of course, readers are invited to take part in the discussion and make their voices heard in the course of the spring.

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What needs to be done so that online exchange is perceived as a blessing for democracy again? Who should take responsibility for containing growing polarization? While politicians are desperate for solutions and social media operators seem overwhelmed by their own creations, the answer could be in the hands of civil society. Should the impulses for change come from below, from the users – that is, democratically?

Germany’s pioneering role

Different countries around the world are trying to solve the problem by passing new laws and regulations. Germany is playing a pioneering role with the NetzDG, which affects all platforms with more than two million users in Germany, a country with around 80 million inhabitants. Such platforms must ensure that complaints are carefully examined and all illegal content is removed within 24 hours. In 2019, Facebook was fined 2 million euros (2.2 million francs) for violating these requirements.

German law was successfully exported (see map). In October 2020, the Danish think tank Justitia totaled 25 countries that had either discussed or already passed laws inspired by the NetzDG.

But there is a catch. The underlying concept of the German model can easily be misused by less democratic governments. As Justitia stated in her report, the NetzDG contains legal guarantees and provisions to protect freedom of expression, which, however, have not been adopted to the same extent by all countries.

India, for example, is trying to use new rules to ban content that is perceived as a threat to the “unity, integrity, defense, security and sovereignty of the country” – a formulation aimed at silencing unwanted voices. Russia also explicitly refers to the NetzDG model in its regulations against fake news. In 2020, it created a legal framework that enables the Internet to be completely paralyzed in the event of an (undefined) “emergency”.

Propaganda in Hungary and Poland

What is perceived by some as a necessary fight against hatred is clearly perceived by others as censorship. Petra Grimm, Professor of Digital Ethics at the Stuttgart Media University, is convinced: Freedom of expression doesn’t just mean being able to say what you want. “Freedom of expression, like freedom in general, always has certain limits.”

In Poland, meanwhile, there is a longstanding stalemate between Facebook and politicians of the ruling party PiS, who have repeatedly spread anti-LGBT messages on social media and have therefore been banned from the platform.

While most countries are busy preventing dangerous or harmful content from appearing on the Internet, Poland and Hungary are taking a different approach. They want to stop Facebook and Co. To block user profiles as long as the contributions of these users do not violate national laws. In February Hungary’s Justice Minister wrote (on Facebook) that the big social media companies were trying to “limit the visibility of Christian, conservative, right-wing opinions”.

Need for action in Switzerland?

In Switzerland there are still no regulations specifically geared towards social media. The web activist Jolanda Spiess-Hegglin leads the efforts to change this and to fight hatred on the Internet, especially with the organization Netzcourage. She sees an urgent need for action: “A cabinet minister should decide: It is time to set up a working group and draft a law on hate speech,” she says.

It is just too easy, says Spiess-Hegglin, to get away with discriminatory or malicious statements that you have been hacked or that someone else is using your computer.

Not only politicians have a duty here, stresses Grimm. “Technology companies also have the responsibility to carry out self-regulation.” And in some countries Facebook and Twitter themselves are now calling for clearer regulations. But Spiess-Hegglin is not convinced: “When companies demand clearer rules from the state, it’s like a murderer saying: ‘You shouldn’t sell me a knife, otherwise I’ll just go there and kill someone!'”

Jolanda Spiess-Hegglin. © Keystone / Gaetan Bally
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More clicks, more money

Commercial social media platforms, however, will hardly change significantly on their own initiative. According to Grimm, the basic problem is a structural one. “Messages that are very spectacular and stretch the truth a little or, even better, arouse feelings, are clicked particularly often. And of course social media earn their money with clicks. “

Spiess-Hegglin puts it in a nutshell: “Social media allow hate speech because they generate more clicks and thus more sales.”

So what’s the solution? “What we need is an alternative social network that works according to principles of public law and enables communication without any commercial exploitation,” says Grimm.

What she has in mind already exists. In Taiwan, the PTT platform, often referred to as Taiwan’s Reddit, is funded by the National University and operates independently of advertising funds and shareholders.

In an interview with SWI swissinfo.ch, Taiwan’s digital minister Audrey Tang described this system as a “prosocial” model, in contrast to commercial providers, which she increasingly perceives as “antisocial”.

Professor Petra Grimm. Radmila guy

“We need a new narrative”

In order for social media to change for the better, civil society needs to exert pressure, Tang says. In Taiwan, civil society has already successfully called for more transparency in politics. “Hard-won, radical transparency in campaign funding has become the norm”. Facebook is also bowing to such new norms and is now disclosing data on political advertising in real time. “We have not passed a law on this. It’s based entirely on social sanctions, ”says Tang.

For Fabrizio Gilardi, political scientist and digitization researcher, it is time to fundamentally rethink our interactions in the digital world. “It’s not primarily about laws, but about how we as a society want to deal with each other digitally,” he says.

Switzerland relies on individual judgment

Spiess-Hegglin also believes that we need to rethink our direct interaction. “We have to learn to cultivate communication in such a way that it doesn’t get out of hand,” she says. “Basically, social media is a good thing, especially for activists who are barely heard in traditional media,” she is convinced.

“We have to build a virtuous social media culture on behalf of the users,” says Grimm. “We need a new narrative, a more optimistic and value-driven one.” And it takes serious effort and political support to create alternatives to the commercial tech giants. “All measures should at least take place across Europe” – including Switzerland, says Grimm.

However, the Swiss authorities are currently not focusing on European regulation. The Federal Office of Communication is examining possible Swiss solutions for the governance of online platforms. Matthias Ammann from the liberal think tank Avenir Suisse advocates relying on the personal judgment of the individual instead of regulation. This task is ultimately entrusted to the citizens of Switzerland’s direct democratic system, he writes in the NZZexternal link.

Freedom of expression series

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