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“CEOs or Lawmakers?” – Tra i Leoni event on free speech, social media and censorship

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“CEOs or Lawmakers? Social medias straddling free speech and censorship” is the event organized by Tra I Leoni on the 13th of April

Moderated by professor Valerio Lubello, three distinguished guests have agreed to intervene in our event on free speech and censoring : Paulina Milewska (anti-SLAPP researcher at the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom), Deborah Behar (legal officer of the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology, as well as Bocconi Alumna) , and Francesco Nicodemo (Italian expert in communication and digital innovation). With their help, we have been able to gain valuable insights into the world of social media and on the most central debate between the regulation of digital platforms and free speech.

Paulina Milewska: SLAPPS and the basic rights of democracy

The first part of the event was made up by the conversation with Paulina Milewska. First and foremost, she explained the meaning of SLAPP, that is Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation. This is an act that involves two main characters: on one hand you have someone who speaks in the public interest, journalist, activist, writers and on the other hand people connected to politics, corporations that file lawsuits trying to silence the other party and exhaust enormous financial resources from them. She told us that, usually, the cases are dismissed by the courts and resolved in favor of the activists, but that takes time and resources. The most emblematic case is certainly the one of Daphne Caruana Galizia, who had about 50 SLAPP lawsuits filed against her just before being killed, so she had to be in court every day: these costed her money, time, but also had a very huge psychological burden and contributed to show other journalists in Malta what will happen if they followed her path.
The crucial thing here, she clearly pointed out, is that by filing SLAPPS those plaintiffs are affecting two aspects of freedom of expression: discouraging public discussions, but also making citizens unable to use their freedom of expression by not being well informed. To sum up, it is possible to say that SLAPPs endanger human rights by impacting freedom of expression and irremediably distorting the system of civil law remedies.
Paulina Milewska concluded her intervention by giving us precious insights into the SLAPPS cases that got her most interested and indignant. Among these, she quoted the case of the SLAPP of a very powerful Hungarian family, closely related to President Viktor Orban, against Forbes Hungary, as they tried to prevent the journalists from publishing their name and patrimonial value in the list of the wealthiest people in the country. Forbes Hungary, following the decision of the court, had to withdraw all the copies of the newspaper in just one night and destroy them.
Some hope, however, comes from the announcement of the European Commission to undertake legislative initiatives against SLAPPS: although it is still unclear how the Commission will elaborate this topic, it is ascertained that it will happen.

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Francesco Nicodemo: no polarization without education?

Following Milewska’s interview, professor Lubello turned to Mr. Francesco Nicodemo, who has been the communication manager of the Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi as well as the Democratic Party. Mr. Nicodemo gave the audience an interesting insight as a communication expert on his previous jobs and on his views about the social media world. Particularly captivating was his account of how he dealt with the communication of one of the most important political parties in Italy during a time of political polarization as the one we are living in and that started probably from 2016: the year in which all digital platforms have started to work on policies, algorithms and rules to give us a better digital environment.
According to him, polarization still has an enormous impact on politicians but that doesn’t depend on the social media environment: rather it have been the issues that people have brough up to politicians to lead to this . And on the contrary, social media has been a way to reduce the distance between politics and people all over the world: Barack Obama’s election is considered by him as the most relevant example of this.
Indeed, he claimed, fake news is not a recent invention: it has been here since the dawn of human history. However, it is certainly true that social media has accelerated the rate at which millions of people receive information. So, the point is not to pass legislation that regulates social media platforms, but rather, to say it with Tony Blair’s words to “educate, educate, educate” and especially provide an education for all those people that approach social media technologies later in their lives. “No legislative initiative can give an answer to this big issue”, he concludes.

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Deborah Behar: the European Commission, the new DCA and the regulation of online sphere

After that, the word was passed over to Ms. Deborah Behar, a legal officer for the European Commission. She gave an engaging introduction on the role of the European Union today and what is the European context that makes sure what we see online is safe and guarantees our freedom of expressions. Ms. Baher exhaustively explained the legal background left over by the ecommerce directive of 2000 and its three founding principles (negative liability, prohibition of general monitoring, country of origin principle), but also underlined that nowadays the digital services offered to internet users have become such a radically different thing from when the directive was implemented. And that is exactly why the European Commission is looking forward to approving the new Digital Content Act (DCA for short), a step that will follow the necessary negotiations with the other European institutions. The aim of this new piece of European legislation, a regulation (thus binding on the member states), is to modernize the legal framework, avoid the fragmentation between members states, facilitate control, increase transparency and understand the decisions online platforms make on our behalf when deciding what content to remove and what content to leave on their media. This also aims at increasing the responsibilities by putting several obligations that are going to be tailored on both the type and size of the digital service, including obligations on very large platforms (that is, platforms with more than 45 million users in the EU) that are focused on fixing the vulnerabilities for amplifying harmful behavior. For example, they have an imperative to provide an assessment of the risk that the digital service might cause to society and devise potential ways to mitigate those risks.
Importantly, she says, the European Union is not going to define what is illegal content: that will be left to member states. But the aim of the DCA is to provide countries with an oversight of the platforms use and to empower users so that they can understand “how to move in the online sphere”. Of course, this also includes focusing on education, something that the European Commission is trying to do by also providing the national government with the indication that at least 20% of the New Generation EU money is used for the digitalization of the country and, most importantly, for walking into the future: a future of challenges and changes that awaits us all .

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Author profile
Federica Di Chiara

Just an ordinary girl who got her University wrong and should have studied literature instead. Originally from Bari (Italy), I am now a first-year BIG student. I am incredibly passionate in politics, philosophy, literature, economics but it would be more correct to say that I mostly die of curiosity for everything that happens around me: my challenge is to try to put all the emotions the world  unleashes in me into words.   

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