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‘Tech firms are too powerful’ says Lord Williams after Trump removed from social-media platforms

22 January 2021


THE former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Williams has warned that the removal of Donald Trump from social-media platforms could set a precedent and hand too much power to unaccountable technology companies.

Mr Trump was banned by both Twitter and Facebook after the storming of the United States Capitol earlier this month by some of his supporters (News, 15 January); both websites accused him of inciting violence.

Lord Williams said that he was concerned about giving private firms the power to bar anyone from social media without clearer rules and regulation.

“While there are those who are frankly relieved at President Trump’s suspension, there are those who rather more realistically say ‘Just what tools are you putting into the hands of those who make these decisions, and just exactly what are the criteria?’” he said on Tuesday, when giving evidence online to a House of Lords committee on freedom of expression. “Not just because he’s a deplorable and embarrassing person to have stampeding around the enclosure, but what specifics?”

While it might go too far to have the State regulate by law what things could and could not be said online, Lord Williams argued, Silicon Valley tech titans should not be given total freedom, either. “There is a danger here if it’s simply about handing this over to companies without some regulatory framework and clarity. I would like to see some more negotiation about the openness of criteria which might be used to ban.”

Much of what took place on social-media networks was deplorable, he conceded, but simply banning everything was no solution. Instead, he wondered whether it might be possible to build new communities with stricter “moral protocols” and “voluntary covenants of behaviour”. While this might not tackle the underlying issues, it could spread good practice, Lord Williams suggested.

“And, if we were to try to build online communities of good practice, I would hope and pray religious communities would be at the forefront of supporting this system,” he said.

When asked whether there should be any special protection in law for religious practice and belief, he demurred, however, arguing that the law should protect the religious as citizens first and foremost; it was as important for others to be protected from “aggressive, demeaning, and threatening behaviour” by religious people as vice versa.

Believers often cried “foul” and said that their freedom of conviction was being stifled, Lord Williams said; but the same was also true of some secular activists, who said that traditionalist religious teaching should be suppressed.

“I know in questions of gender and sexuality this is about as hot a topic as exists in the frontier between the religious and the secular world,” he said; but, in principle, a conservative Christian or Orthodox Jew should be able to express their religious opposition to same-sex behaviour “without instantly being seen as promoting violence against homosexual persons”.

Ultimately, better conversation and interaction online should be fostered not by recourse to law (except in the worst cases), but by the long hard work of finding more in common, he concluded.

“I take great personal offence when prominent secularists tell me what an idiot I am for believing what I believe,” he said. “I prefer they be less ignorant and abusive about it, but I don’t expect to take them to court.”

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