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European values are starting to define U.S. tech privacy, says journalist

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, HOST:

The social media giant Twitter introduced a new CEO and announced major leadership changes this week after co-founder and longtime head Jack Dorsey stepped down Monday. And that's far from the only news the site generated this week. On Tuesday, the platform made another announcement. It will ban users from sharing photos or videos of private individuals without their permission in an acknowledgment of concerns about privacy. The new policy sparked some criticism it would stifle free speech, but as my next guest notes, it's not exactly new for Twitter. Twitter's had it in place for the past five years in the European Union.

The tech journalist Casey Newton argues that European values are starting to define the experience of Americans on the internet. Newton runs the Substack publication Platformer, and he joins us now. Hey, Casey.

CASEY NEWTON: Hey, David.

FOLKENFLIK: So start us off. Tell us, what does this policy actually do?

NEWTON: So the idea of the policy is that if you're an average citizen and someone takes a photo or video of you and you don't like it because you feel like it's harassing you or making fun of you in some way, you can request that Twitter takes it down. And if Twitter looks at it and they think, yep, you're being harassed, they will go ahead and remove it. There are a lot of exceptions to that policy, though, which we should probably also talk about.

FOLKENFLIK: OK.

NEWTON: So for example, if you're at a public protest, protesting, Twitter says they will keep photos and videos of you up. You're participating in the public discourse. If you are a celebrity or a politician or an activist or a journalist, you will not have the same ability to get media of yourself removed that average citizens do. So Twitter says that when this policy is enforced properly, it should only serve to protect people who don't have, you know, the blue check or the other credentials.

FOLKENFLIK: In your recent piece, you've written that, quote, "the American internet is becoming increasingly European." What do you mean by that?

NEWTON: So in the European Union, they take a different view toward free expression than we do here in the United States. European lawmakers, regulators, courts, they're much more likely to weigh it against the potential harms that speech might cause. So one famous example is in Germany, where you're not allowed to praise the Nazi Party. They've sort of made the determination that that would be more harmful than allowing people to say whatever they wanted about the Nazis. One of the more novel things that they've come up with over there is something they call the right to be forgotten.

And the basic idea is if you commit a crime when you're young, Europe doesn't think that should follow your search results around with you for the rest of your life. And so in the middle of the last decade, they started requiring platforms like Google to remove search results in some cases when they determined that someone had the right to be forgotten. And it's actually sort of in that recognition of a human right that Twitter's policy that we're talking about ultimately stemmed from.

FOLKENFLIK: Google has largely fought back against this idea the right to be forgotten in Europe. However, folks at Twitter told you they acted in the absence of any steps, of any overt pressure from Congress or other federal officials to make them do this. How likely is it that tech companies that, you know, span across geographical boundaries will look to Europe for guidance?

NEWTON: I think you're already seeing it in a bunch of different ways that we could name. These companies want to spend basically as little time and effort as possible in complying with regulations, right? They just want to sort of make money and do their thing.

FOLKENFLIK: The right to be left alone.

NEWTON: (Laughter) Yes. The tech platforms too would love the right to be left alone. And so what that means is when new regulations are passed around the world, a platform is likely to say, how can we implement this thing everywhere, right? The last thing that they want to do is to develop a different policy for every country, even though I think that would also probably do a lot of good. But because there has been such inaction in the United States when it comes to tech regulation, by default, it is Europe that is becoming America's tech regulator.

FOLKENFLIK: I mean, Twitter officials used to boast of their free speech aspirations and principles. I think it was their British top executive who once claimed that Twitter was the free speech wing of the free speech party. How would you describe where Twitter finds itself now?

NEWTON: Well, Twitter has officially disavowed the idea that it is the free speech wing of the free speech party, and there's an important reason why. In the middle of the last decade, the company was struggling. They were trying to sell themselves. And Disney took a long look at it. But they said, you know what? There is so much harassment and abuse and toxicity on this platform that we don't see any way that we can own you. And Twitter was really shaken by that experience. And so over the past five years or so, they've invested a lot more in trying to remove some of that harassment and abuse, make it easier for people to report it, basically to keep people safer online. And it turns out that the way to keep people safe online is you dramatically reduce the amount of free expression that people have. So I understand how Twitter got to this place.

FOLKENFLIK: From your standpoint, for the average user or even the average frequent user who may not be a professional journalist, is that striking a better or worse balance of concerns?

NEWTON: Well, I like to say that your real policy is what you enforce. And it remains to be seen how this policy is enforced in the United States. You're already seeing cases where right-wing activists have been using this policy even as it has just been enacted to get photos of themselves removed at protests. It speaks to the fact that this stuff is really, really difficult to enforce. And most tech platforms are really mediocre at best when it comes to making these kinds of nuanced judgments about which photo and video is truly in the public interest.

FOLKENFLIK: We've been focused largely on anti-harassment policy, but you recently wrote that Europe is ahead of the U.S. also in how they're thinking about regulating the algorithms promoting harmful content on these platforms. What does that say about where the future regulation on the internet is headed?

NEWTON: Well, you know, if you can bring yourself to care about European tech policy, I highly recommend that you spend five or 10 minutes reading up on the Digital Services Act and the Digital Markets Act because they're really landmark pieces of legislation that would change things in a big way here in the United States. And that Digital Service Act goes directly at some of these issues that Congress holds endless hearings about about, you know, the toxic speech online. What are we going to do about it? How are we going to rein in tech companies' power? So I think sometime in the next year, that bill could move through the EU's arcane legal process and actually become law. And if so, then Europe will continue to be both way ahead of us but also, essentially, regulating our version of the internet.

FOLKENFLIK: In a sense Congress, outsourcing its own obligations across the Atlantic.

NEWTON: Yeah, although I don't think they would put it that way. It's funny. You watch these hearings, and the self-regard that these members of Congress have for themselves never ceases to amaze me given...

FOLKENFLIK: A lot of very sober faces, a lot of very sonorous statements.

NEWTON: Yes. And, of course, they take this very seriously. And, you know, the tech companies are going to get away with this anymore. And yet, you know, no legislation ever manages to make it to the president's desk.

FOLKENFLIK: That was Casey Newton. He's a contributing editor for The Verge, and he covers technology and democracy for his publication on Substack called Platformer. Casey Newton, thanks so much for your time.

NEWTON: Thanks for having me, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.