The popularization and development of the Internet has brought us to the age of high-speed dissemination and popularization of information. Freedom of expression is an enduring cornerstone of a democratic society, and it has become even more important now that information can be disseminated at high speed. However, regulation of information is necessary, and it is important to strike a balance between regulation and freedom of expression. In Western societies, the regulation of the Internet is based on handing over the right to regulate information to platforms, which independently regulate the information on the Internet. As a huge Internet group that cannot be ignored, China’s approach to information supervision is to have the government supervise information. China and the West have adopted different approaches, with government regulation prioritizing national security and social stability, while Western democracies focus more on ensuring individual freedom without compromising public order. This paper explores the complex challenges of balancing government regulation and platform regulation with the right to freedom of expression, using examples from both China and the West.
Government Regulation in China
The regulation of Internet information in China is very strict. It is for this reason that China has taken a different approach to regulation than Western countries. The Chinese government has created a relatively closed Internet environment by building firewalls to segment the Chinese Internet from the world Internet. This ensures that only state-sanctioned narratives can penetrate the digital realm.
In addition, the Chinese government has adopted a real-name policy to further regulate the Internet. Almost all Internet applications in China require verification of a person’s cell phone number, and many applications require users to provide more detailed information about their identity. China’s Internet regulation has evolved from hardware regulation and software regulation to content regulation and data regulation (Gao, 2019). All these show the importance that the Chinese government places on Internet regulation. For example, DouYin, the most popular short video platform in China, plays a key role in shaping public discourse. However, the video content in it, as well as the video comments, are closely monitored, reflecting the Chinese government’s approach to Internet regulation. The Chinese government’s regulation of Internet content has gone a long way toward ensuring national security and social stability, but it has also had an impact on freedom of expression. The Internet emphasizes the ability of people to transcend institutional goals, overcome bureaucratic barriers, and subvert established values in the process of creating new worlds (Castells, 2002), and Castells argues that the Internet can help transcend institutional goals. Government regulation of the Internet may undermine this expectation. Just as the Chinese government will not allow speech that is clearly unfavorable to the government to spread on the Internet. Government regulation of the Internet restricts freedom of speech to some extent. Freedom of speech is the key to determining whether we can transcend institutional goals and overcome bureaucratic obstacles. Government restrictions on information limit our freedom of expression, as well as social and institutional development. Therefore, the fundamental reason why China has adopted government regulation of Internet information is to maximize national security and social stability, but this also means that freedom of expression will be limited to a certain extent.
- Regulation of the Internet by platforms
Unlike China, where the government regulates information on the Internet, the approach taken by Western countries is generally to have platforms regulate information on the Internet. Western countries place more emphasis on the concept of decentralization. Understanding decentralized control will be the key to maintaining Internet freedom in the coming years. (Ramesh & Raman, 2020) The implementation of the decentralization concept allows the production and dissemination of information to be no longer monopolized by a specific company or institution, but allows everyone to produce and disseminate information independently. This has increased the richness of information while also greatly promoting freedom of expression. It also means that Western countries are placing more emphasis on the freedom of individuals to disseminate information and on market-driven information dissemination. It likewise suggests that government intervention in online speech tends to be more restrained, with governments primarily aiming to curb obviously harmful content, such as hate speech that threatens social harmony, or terrorist propaganda that jeopardizes national security. Thus, the idea of platforms regulating information on the Internet has been proposed. Platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, for example, have taken on the responsibility of regulating information on the Internet. Platforms have established community guidelines to maintain the integrity of the platform and create a safe online environment for users. But regulating information through platforms is also controversial. Critics argue that the regulations set by platforms are sometimes inconsistent and may even be influenced by overarching corporate interests, overshadowing genuine concerns for the welfare of users.
An example is the incident in which former US President Donald Trump banned the use of Twitter. The Trump incident further galvanized the debate on platform regulation as well as freedom of speech. The Trump incident raises new questions. about whether tech companies, regardless of their size and influence, should have the power to silence the voices of important political figures, and where the line should be drawn to ensure a balance between platform autonomy and democratic values in the regulation of public discourse.
- What we should do
The advantage of government regulation of online information is that it maximizes the protection of national interests as well as security, and in some cases, it is also crucial for cultural preservation. In addition, government regulation of cyber information has been instrumental in combating cyber crime (Liang & Lu, 2010). However, government regulation of online information has significant drawbacks, as excessive government oversight undermines the right to freedom of expression and risks turning into authoritarianism.
Platform regulation also has advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, platforms are agile enough to respond quickly to a wide range of issues on the Internet, and they can minimize the impact of politics on freedom of expression. However, platforms’ decisions can sometimes lack transparency or be influenced by profit-driven motives.
Therefore, in order to solve the problems that arise in platform regulation and government regulation, a multi-stakeholder approach is needed in which governments, platforms and users cooperate. Governments, platforms and users should actively collaborate to develop regulatory frameworks. On the other hand, regulatory transparency is equally important. Increased transparency and accountability can contribute to better governance of the Internet (Khazaeli & Stockemer, 2013). Therefore, there is a need to increase transparency in the regulation of information on the Internet. For example, platforms could publicize their content review algorithms, and governments could conduct public consultations before implementing policies to regulate the Internet. In addition, civil society must play an active role. In areas where platforms regulate, advocacy groups can hold governments and platforms accountable for ensuring that decisions taken do not violate fundamental rights. In government-regulated areas, international agencies can make government regulation less detrimental to freedom of expression by encouraging governments to implement more open policies and emphasizing the benefits of a freer Internet.
To summarize, I have described the two ways of regulating online information by the government and by platforms. China as an example of government regulation shows us that government regulation can greatly ensure social stability and national security, but there are also restrictions on freedom of expression due to excessive government control over public opinion. Although regulation by platforms can avoid government control of online information to a certain extent, there are also cases in which platforms influence users’ freedom of expression due to economic interests. Therefore, in order to balance regulation and freedom of expression as much as possible, it is necessary for the government, platforms, and users to work together to formulate more standardized and transparent regulatory rules.
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