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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

2 hours ago - World

Report: LGBTQ+ Afghans' lives "dramatically worsened" under Taliban rule

Taliban fighters in Kabul, Afghanistan, earlier this month. Photo: Mohd Rasfan/AFP via Getty Images

LGBTQ+ Afghans have been threatened, attacked and "faced an increasingly desperate situation and grave threats to their safety" since the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan last August, per a report published Wednesday.

What they're saying: "We spoke with LGBT Afghans who have survived gang rape, mob attacks, or have been hunted by their own family members who joined the Taliban, and they have no hope that state institutions will protect them," per a statement from study co-author J. Lester Feder.

4 hours ago - World

Canadian Indigenous group finds 93 suspected unmarked graves

A makeshift memorial honoring the 215 children whose remains were found in a mass grave in Brantford, Ontario, Canada, last May. Photo: Cole Burston/AFP via Getty Images

Indigenous leaders in Canada's western province of British Columbia said Tuesday they believe they've found 93 unmarked graves near a former boarding school.

The big picture: Hundreds of mass graves have been found at the grounds of former residential schools for Indigenous children since last May, when the remains of 215 children were uncovered at one such site in B.C.

7 hours ago - World

Coast Guard searches for 39 people after boat capsizes off Florida coast

A U.S. Coast Guard ship leaving its base in Miami Beach, Florida, in July. Photo: AP/Marta Lavandier

U.S. Coast Guard crews were searching into the night for 39 people whose boat sank off Florida's coast over the weekend after traveling from the Bahamas.

The big picture: A "good Samaritan" contacted the Coast Guard about 8 a.m. Tuesday to say they "rescued a man clinging to a capsized vessel" 45 miles east of Fort Pierce, per a tweet from the agency, which noted it was dealing with "a suspected human smuggling venture."

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