Culture

Microsoft's Satya Nadella says Big Tech needs laws to govern free speech

The CEO says regulators need to decide not if the likes of Trump can say what they want on social media, but whether they should be allowed on it at all.

The CEO of Microsoft is seen in front of a large presentation.
MANJUNATH KIRAN/AFP/Getty Images

In an interview with Bloomberg earlier this week, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, shared some of his thoughts on the ongoing debate concerning Big Tech and free speech. Nadella said that before Big Tech even makes free speech decisions for individual or group accounts, it should deliberate whether someone as incendiary as Trump should even be allowed on social media services in the first place. Nadella says regulators need to look at laws governing what social networks carry because leaving those decisions to the companies themselves is a recipe for disaster.

Nadella told Bloomberg, "Unilateral action by individual companies in democracies like ours is just not long-term stable — we do need to be able to have a framework of laws and norms. Depending on any one individual CEO in any one of these companies to make calls that are going to really help us maintain something as sacred and as important as our democracy in the long run is just no way that at least I, as a citizen, would advocate for."

The CEO's comments follow the drama of the last few months that culminated in Facebook and Twitter removing then still president Trump's accounts from their respective networks in light of the Capitol riots on January 6. The same riots Trump now faces a second impeachment over.

Microsoft wades into the speech wars — Nadella's commentary might strike some readers as odd given that Microsoft itself does not have a popular social media network for consumers. But as one of the world's biggest technology companies, and as a significant player in the cloud-computing sector, it has a vested interest in the outcome of this debate, and will inevitably be affected by any legislative changes it prompts.

Soon after hate-friendly social network Parler — where both right-wingers and extremists gathered to share their views including support for the Capitol riots — got the boot from both Apple and Google, public scrutiny turned to Amazon. The company didn't take long to yank Parler off of its hosting services, prompting pleas from the app creators for a reversal of the decision in court. A plea that failed to find sympathy.

Too much power — Microsoft could one day face the same sort of tough decision Amazon did, and it's refreshing to see a tech titan like Nadella caution against any single entity having the power to silence people or services unilaterally. But, there's also a hint of buck-passing going on here. By calling for regulators to decide what companies should be required to host, the companies themselves get to continue to absolve themselves of editorial responsibility. They also get to claim neutrality and avoid angering anyone. Which is savvy, if a little spineless.