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Laurie Clarke

Reporter

MPs grill Twitter and Facebook over Trump censorship issue

UK MPs have joined the call for President Trump to be censored from social media platforms due to his incendiary tweets about the US anti-racism protests currently underway.

Despite the fact that the statement in question – where Trump deployed the historically racist phrase “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” – has been widely broadcast by TV networks and newspapers across the world, MPs – who were grilling reps from Twitter and Facebook at the latest online harms parliamentary committee meeting yesterday – were concerned about the words being allowed to remain on Twitter and Facebook.

Following Labour MP Kevin Brennan’s spluttering incredulity over head of product policy and counterterrorism at Facebook Monika Bickert’s claim not to have seen the the New York Times letter penned by disgruntled Facebook employees, Bickert responded that the post had been allowed to remain up because it’s the platform’s policy to allow discussion of government use of force.

“We think if governments are talking about using force, people should be able to discuss that […] frequently, there could be a safety reason that people would want to know what governments are planning,” said Bickert.

Twitter – which allowed the tweet to remain up but amended it with a notice and blocked the retweet function – was probed on the same issue. “Now that you’re imposing scrutiny on President Trump’s tweets, are you a platform, a publisher?” asked Tory MP and DCMS chair Julian Knight. “Or do you recognise you are what many people believe you are, which is a hybrid of both?”

“I totally agree with the premise. I don’t think the traditional dichotomy really works anymore,” replied Nick Pickles, director of public policy strategy at Twitter, saying the platform is now seeking to provide extra context for tweets (to be supplied by “journalists, experts, academics, third parties”).

“Has there been any discussion at all within your organisation of suspending President Trump’s Twitter account?” Knight asked.

Pickles clarified that the Twitter decision on Trump’s account was taken because “the public debate about that tweet is important to protect”.

In a botched attempt at a gotcha moment, SNP MP John Nicolson described an account on Twitter that posts exactly the same words as Trump, declaring triumphantly “you suspended his account for violating your standards”.

“I think this is the system working as intended […] In both cases, we said the tweet broke our rules,” replied Pickles, noting that according to a public policy the firm announced last year, that if an account breaks the rules but meets the criteria of being verified, having more than 100,000 followers and being operated by a public figure, “then we may take the option, that in the public interest, we want that tweet to be available”. In the case of the Trump tweet, he said: “One of those accounts meets those criteria; one of those doesn’t”.

MPs also returned to their favourite internet bugbears: online anonymity and encryption. It’s the opinion of some MPs that anonymity online couldn’t possibly serve any useful purpose.

Pickles offered two examples of where anonymity would actually be pretty useful: in both the current political moment in the US (where people have testified on Twitter about the threat to their career of publicly being a vocal supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement online) and Hong Kong, where for obvious reasons protesters may want to shield their identity. Other examples, of course, include people who are posting in authoritarian countries, those seeking to avoid the attention of stalker or abusive ex-partners, whistleblowers, or parody accounts whose primary purpose is humour.

But the MPs present appeared to remain stubbornly impervious to the idea that there could be any reason for wanting to be anonymous online other than being a troll, demanding to know why Twitter had not carried out research looking at whether more “factually inaccurate” information was disseminated by anonymous accounts.

“I think one of the problems is that people are focused on anonymous accounts as a disproportionate part of the problem than is actually the case,” said Pickles. He noted that when South Korea trialled removing anonymity from the internet, it “didn’t find a connection between anonymity and abuse”.

Asked whether Facebook still intends to introduce encryption across all user communications across its platforms, Bickert said: “We are still planning to implement end to end encryption, but we’re still in the investigative stages at this point.”

Yvette Cooper took up the charge, demanding to know how child sexual abuse material would be caught by Facebook if everything was encrypted. “How can it be safe if nobody can see the content?” asked Cooper.

The Five Eyes intelligence sharing alliance, featuring the US, UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, is reportedly in the midst of staging a legal challenge against Facebook over its plans for encryption, ostensibly for the protection of children.