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Meta’s Oversight Board Adopts International “Norms” Instead of US Free Speech Principles

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In a world where international law (a set of ratified documents) is being rapidly replaced with narratives about a “rules-based system,” it is no wonder that US tech giants like Meta choose to set their free speech “baseline” not on their country’s Constitution, but on “international human rights norms.”

The less clarity there is, the more space for abuse and biased interpretation, critics might say. But Meta Oversight Board member Kenji Yoshino is satisfied that this is the right approach, and even spelled it out.

“Our baseline here is not the US Constitution and free speech, but rather international human rights norms,” Yoshino recently told the National Constitution Center, a private nonprofit.

Such bold statements require bold justification, and so this Oversight Board member noted that in terms of free speech “values” the US is “an outlier,” while Meta’s global reach means it must adjust its policies accordingly.

There are plenty of openly authoritarian regimes out there, with their own “free speech values,” but when Yoshino – from the William J. Brennan Center for Justice – spoke about “striking a balance” between US law and international “norms” – he chose to mention the palatable to his audience example of Europe.

What’s striking in this context, however, is that in many, if not all European countries, “hate speech” is criminalized, unlike in the US. It isn’t clear from Yoshino’s statements how a balance between such different approaches to speech can even be achieved in a social platform’s guidelines, particularly around elections.

But, that is the explanation for why the giant chooses not to make the First Amendment its “baseline.”

And if the baseline is international human rights norms, Yoshino admitted, “often times that calculus comes out differently than it would if the baseline were First Amendment norms.”

Such statements will do little to reassure those in the US already wary of Meta’s handling of content, censorship, and free speech, especially ahead of yet another high-stakes election coming up.

The fact that after a brief “pause” the FBI and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) are now officially back in the business of “communicating” (opponents of the policy would say, “colluding”) with social media platforms, doesn’t help matters.

If anything, it raises fears of a concerted censorship push, driven both from the outside by government pressure, and from within Meta itself.

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