Dispatch from the 65th ICA Annual Conference, San Juan, PR, May 21 – 25, 2015

Tatevik and Andrea with Bill  Herman, Professor at CUNY
Tatevik and Andrea with Bill Herman, Professor at CUNY

By Tatevik Sargsyan

Tatevik Sargsyan and Andrea Hackl, PhD candidates at American University’s School of Communication, presented findings from their joint study on the enactment of social media’s speech policies at the International Communication Association’s annual conference Communication Across the Life Span in San Juan, PR. The presentation was submitted to the Communication Law and Policy division, which brings together cutting edge research and analysis of law and policy surrounding information, communication, and technology.

Tatevik and Andrea delivered their presentation on a panel focused on use, search, and compliance in online environments facilitated by Victor Pickard, a Professor at the University of Pennsylvania. In their presentation, Tatevik and Andrea illustrated the ever heightening role that social media play in influencing free expression through their content policies and raised questions about the appropriate procedures and level of transparency necessary to legitimize the voluntary or delegated content removal by those companies. At a time when governments add to the operational burden of intermediaries by increasingly delegating law enforcement to these companies, and expecting them to make decisions about illegal content often without clear criteria, it becomes essential to reconsider the role and responsibility of private companies in the global context of speech governance. Relying on a number of case studies, Tatevik and Andrea demonstrated how the economic and political interests condition the enactment of speech policies of social media, making the process inconsistent and susceptible to critique.

In the presentation’s conclusion, the authors also offered a set of recommendation to governments and companies. The recommendations include developing clear criteria on what content constitutes violation of in-house policies; and developing clear criteria to ensure content removals pose proportionate restriction on speech and are in line with international norms of freedom of expression. In other words, the presenters, while acknowledging the challenges companies face in making decisions about content removals, believe there should be no room to manipulate the enactment of policies opportunistically.