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Could a Trump crusade against cyber-bullying damage the net principles of free speech?

The election of Donald Trump as the United States’ next president took a lot of people by surprise and has left many uncertain about what the future will hold, both politically and economically. Given the influence America has in the world, many industries are also asking how the policies of Mr. Trump’s administration will affect them, and this is as true for the tech sector as it is any other.

I have to admit to being stunned when I woke up to the news that America had actually elected Donald Trump to be their next President. Whether you like it or not, he will be the next President of the United States though and arrangements are already being made for the transition of power from the Obama administration. Therefore, it will be interesting to see what the Trump administration’s attitude to the tech sector will be.

It is also telling that a lot of American tech leaders, who had extensively criticised Trump during the election, are now striking a more conciliatory tone too.

I would say there are both encouraging and worrying signs for the tech industry as a whole. For example, given Trump made his name in business, it would be fair to assume his policies are going to be decidedly pro-business and accommodating for many industries, including tech. However, Trump was also vocally opposed to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which was supported by a coalition of tech industry lobbying groups (opens in new tab), stating that he wanted to impose a 35 per cent tariff on Apple for not making its’ products in America and condemned Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg for advocating the American government should make it easier to hire skilled foreign workers, when anyone working in the tech industry knows that the industry flourishes by bringing the best from around the world together.

Much may also depend upon who Trump appoints as Secretary of Commerce, as he or she will have a significant say in the level of funding and government grants allotted to the tech sector. A number of names have been floated for the appointment, but the only one with any real interest in tech issues seems to be Congressman Chris Collins of New York, who is the Chair of the House Subcommittee on Health and Technology, and a member of a number of tech-based caucuses.

Senator David Perdue of Georgia has also been mentioned, and his would be an interesting appointment for the tech sector. I say this, as he currently sits on the Senate Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law, and has previously voted for the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act (CISA) (opens in new tab). CISA, in many ways, is very similar to the British government’s Digital Communications Bill, commonly referred to as the ‘snoopers’ charter’. Therefore, Perdue’s appointment could be very alarming for the tech sector, as he has actively supported the sharing of the public’s private information with multiple government agencies.

Thus, this could put tech companies in a very compromising position, as I would assume that, in order to access government funding and grants, they would have to agree to the sharing of user information with all those government agencies. Therefore, given we now increasingly live in a global village, this information could also include the information of British users. Alternatively, American tech firms may feel that they will have to start looking for more private investment instead. Given the scale of American investment in the UK tech industry, even following the Brexit vote, there’s a chance it could have a knock-on effect on UK tech firms too.

From a tech perspective, one of the most interesting things I have heard from the Trump camp during the election though actually came from Donald Trump’s wife. I say this, as Melania Trump has said that the cause she wants to take on while her husband is in office is combating cyber bullying (opens in new tab).

While I would argue the cause of cyber bullying is a very interesting one for this particular First Lady given her husband’s behaviour on Twitter throughout his campaign, it does raise the question of what exactly she meant by this. Furthermore, while Mr. Trump’s transition website (opens in new tab) states that “regulatory reform is [a] cornerstone of the Trump Administration” and promises no new regulations as well as a review of the old ones, this is specifically in the context of business regulation. Hence, I have to wonder whether her influence and her desire to be seen to achieve something in her own right as the First Lady will result in his administration looking to increase the regulation of social media sites and forums, and perhaps, the internet as a whole.

I sincerely hope not, as while online bullying and trolling should be dealt with, I fear it could be at the expense of free speech if not done correctly. Furthermore, Sir Tim Berners-Lee made his creation copyright-free and open access for a reason, because he wanted the internet to belong to the people to use as they wish.

Furthermore, when others have arguably tried to monetise and politicise internet access in the past, they have faced a backlash. For example, when Mark Zuckerberg announced his, or ‘Free Basics’, initiative, where access to Facebook and a limited number of other internet services would be free of data charges, for people in parts of Africa, Asia and Latin America, many criticised it as a marketing ploy (opens in new tab) or an initiative that would effectively create a two-tiered internet, damaging net neutrality in the countries Free Basics had been rolled-out to.

Therefore, I strongly advocate that the tech industry tries to work with the Trump administration as much as possible, as tech helps to move things forward, help people and ultimately, make the world a better place. However, if the Trump administration does begin to show signs of wanting to regulate people’s opinions in the name of defeating cyber bullying, I would encourage everyone in the tech industry to vehemently argue against this.

Given free speech is at the cornerstone of America’s Constitution, and is also a valuable part of British democracy, a very strong argument could be made too.

David Midgley, Head of Operations at Total Processing (opens in new tab)

Image source: Shutterstock/fotoscool