How can we achieve the goal of a free and open internet?
At Twitter, our belief is that the internet should be global, free, and secure. Today, however, the Open Internet has never been more fragile - and techUK’s Digital Ethics Summit in December was a timely moment to highlight the challenges that the Open Internet continues to face. Access to a secure and free internet globally is under significant threat as a result of internet shutdowns, market incumbency, and attempts by governments to silence or censor critics – and these attempts show no sign of slowing down.
Online services like Twitter empower dialogue and free speech by providing a platform for people to speak publicly. Many people who lacked equal access to public platforms 15 years ago, now speak freely on services like Twitter. At its best, important movements like #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, and the climate activism of Greta Thunberg all have their message amplified online.
Over that very same period of progression, we’ve also witnessed concerning trends around internet shutdowns across the world - often targeting the most vulnerable groups in society. In 2020, Access Now and the #KeepItOn coalition documented at least 155 internet shutdowns in 29 countries. This stopped journalists from being able to live report current events, cut off small businesses from their customers and, critically, prevented people from being able to access the most up-to-date information about Covid-19. Indeed, in both 2011 and 2016 the UN Human Rights Council raised very real concerns about internet restrictions - and how these measures ran afoul of international agreements on freedom of expression and information.
As we work towards a free and open internet, the need for transparency has never been greater. This includes clarity for internet users from both technology companies and governments about what content should and should not be allowed online - including in legislative proposals like the UK’s Online Safety Bill. Consumers also need to be protected from the real risks posed by a lack of competition in online services, which watchdogs around the world are becoming increasingly cognisant of. The internet must continue to be more than just a handful of companies; a less competitive internet trends towards a less open internet.
Protecting the Open Internet
So, how should we collectively approach this myriad of challenges? I’d like to offer up five guiding principles we believe will underpin successful policy in striving for an Open Internet:
- The Open Internet is global, should be available to all, and should be built on open standards and the protection of human rights.
- Trust is essential and can be built with transparency, procedural fairness, and privacy protections.
- Recommendation and ranking algorithms should be subject to human choice and control.
- Competition, choice, and innovation are foundations of the Open Internet and should be protected and expanded, ensuring incumbents are not entrenched by laws and regulations.
- Content moderation is more than just leave up or take down. Regulation should allow for a range of interventions, while setting clear definitions for categories of content.
At Twitter, we consider our role in realising these principles every day. Since 2012 the information we share on our own practices has steadily evolved into a comprehensive Twitter Transparency Centre, where users, researchers and policymakers can access information and trends about the content we remove. And in 2018, we gave all those on Twitter the ability to turn off the ranking algorithm on the home timeline - to ensure people on Twitter have meaningful choice and understanding of how algorithms affect their experience.
However, our priority isn’t just how we can support the Open Internet on Twitter - but how we can support this movement across the entire ecosystem. It was with this in mind we were so pleased to work with techUK to hear ideas from panellists from Index on Censorship, The Internet Society and the University of Stirling on how we can enable the Open Internet to flourish (see below). Regulatory proposals continue to emerge from the UK and across the world - some will support the goal of a free and open internet, while others will threaten it - and the discussion was a timely opportunity to reflect on recent trends in this context.
In 2022, our ask to policymakers around the world is this: prioritise the Open Internet. We must avoid the risk of taking for granted the free access to a wide variety of online services that so many of us benefit from today; and look globally at the reality of threats to the open internet and how they’re increasing in both frequency and sophistication. For those on Twitter, our work to protect the Open Internet from repression will never cease.