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Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

A pileup of controversies over how Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Microsoft moderate content on their sites is highlighting how thoroughly major tech companies have become arbiters of speech.

Why it matters: This isn't a job Silicon Valley wants — these companies have long argued the value of freewheeling, unsupervised, boundary-stretching online discourse. But it's the new normal in a media world where power to publish and unpublish now sits with a few companies that aren't prepared for that role.

In just the last 10 days, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Microsoft and other tech giants have, separately or together:

Users expect Facebook and the other platforms to wear many new hats:

  • generals in a war on fake news,
  • judges in cases of inflammatory speech,
  • regulators of potentially harmful information and disinformation,
  • and peacekeepers at the ragged edges of social and political norms

Those are the functions of government, not business — or they have been until now.

My thought bubble: Remember Colin Powell's "Pottery Barn" rule: "If you break it, you own it"? That was about the Iraq war; this is the digital media equivalent. Over the past decade, Facebook, Google, and their peers broke the public sphere. Now they own it.

This isn't just a problem in the U.S. If anything, as Max Fisher points out in the New York Times, the danger of Facebook as a hate amplifier emerged first in places like Myanmar, Indonesia, India, and Sri Lanka, where angry online mobs have translated all too readily into physical-world violence.

  • Meanwhile, as Global Voices documents, governments in the Middle East have figured out how to weaponize user flagging of harmful content as a tool to suppress dissent.

Be smart: This wave of moderation controversies come alongside an equally vast and consequential series of conflicts over privacy, as the public becomes more aware of, and troubled by, how much personal data social networks, online retailers and ad networks have amassed.

  • Cambridge Analytica was a perfect storm for Facebook because it brought fears of privacy intrusion and concerns over inflammatory content together in one package.

The bottom line: Together, the moderation disputes and privacy debates point to a future in which Facebook and its peers face a tough choice: Get good, fast, at being quasi-governments themselves — or hand the mess back to real governments and return to writing code and making money.

Go deeper: How content moderation defines tech platforms

Go deeper

Updated 2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

In photos: The Biden and Harris inauguration

President Biden and first lady Jill Biden watch a fireworks show on the National Mall from the Truman Balcony at the White House on Wednesday night. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

President Biden signed his first executive orders into law from the Oval Office on Wednesday evening after walking in a brief inaugural parade to the White House with First Lady Jill Biden and members of their family. He was inaugurated with Vice President Kamala Harris at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday morning.

Why it matters: Many of Biden's day one actions immediately reverse key Trump administration policies, including rejoining the Paris Agreement and the World Health Organization, launching a racial equity initiative and reversing the Muslim travel ban.

Republicans pledge to set aside differences and work with Biden

President Biden speaks to Sen. Mitch McConnell after being sworn in at the West Front of the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday. Photo: Erin Schaff-Pool/Getty Images

Several Republicans praised President Biden's calls for unity during his inaugural address on Wednesday and pledged to work together for the benefit of the American people.

Why it matters: The Democrats only have a slim majority in the Senate and Biden will likely need to work with the GOP to pass his legislative agenda.

The Biden protection plan

Joe Biden announces his first run for the presidency in June 1987. Photo: Howard L. Sachs/CNP/Getty Images

The Joe Biden who became the 46th president on Wednesday isn't the same blabbermouth who failed in 1988 and 2008.

Why it matters: Biden now heeds guidance about staying on task with speeches and no longer worries a gaffe or two will cost him an election. His staff also limits the places where he speaks freely and off the cuff. This Biden protective bubble will only tighten in the months ahead, aides tell Axios.

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