Jan 21, 2020 - Technology

How Snapchat has dodged the techlash over speech issues

Illustration of Snapchat ghost holding speech bubbles
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel says his company has managed to avoid heavy criticism over speech issues by clearly dividing private, largely unregulated communications from heavily moderated public broadcasts.

Why it matters: Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have all struggled in recent years over where to draw the line on permitted speech.

What they're saying: Responding to a question from Axios while speaking at the DLD conference in Munich on Sunday, Spiegel said that Snapchat has modeled how it treats speech after existing institutions "One of the things we have been able to do is borrow significantly from history," Spiegel said.

  • In private communication, Spiegel said, people expect a conversation to remain private — and if the government wants access, it needs to get a warrant.
  • By contrast, he said, broadcasters have always been subject to a range of restrictions. "There's a different level of responsibility when you are talking to an audience that's that large," he said.

Online platforms' biggest problems lie in the middle ground between these two, Spiegel said — here, there have been powerfully positive uses of social media, but also incredibly damaging ones.

  • "I think as a society we haven't yet decided how we want to tackle that and think about that new tool," he said. "I do think that is sort of the existential question of the moment."
  • That uncertainty, he said, is showing up in the debate over whether to revisit Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which legally protects platforms that post users' speech.

Snapchat plays in the middle ground, too, but it does so cautiously, whereas that space is where Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have all built their empires.

  • On Snapchat, user-generated public stories can get pulled into stories around major public events on the Snap Map.
  • These stories can be widely consumed by anyone publicly, but are designed to be consumed at a more local level — by users who are located near a natural disaster, for instance.

Be smart: Spiegel's "look to the broadcasters" argument is one he's been refining for years (here he is making it in 2018). That means he's learned another old rule of broadcasting: You have to tell people the same thing over and over again before they will get the message.

Go deeper: Snap continues its acquisition spree with video animation startup

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