Limiting online misinformation and hate speech is a “moral minefield” whose resolution requires governments to establish “clear, democratically agreed guardrails”, a senior Meta executive has argued during a high-level dialogue in which he argued that increasing Balkanisation of the internet will leave the world remembering today as “the heyday of the open internet”.

“There is a great deal of talk about the global internet,” Meta vice president of global affairs Nick Clegg said during a panel session at the recent Sydney Dialogue summit, “but the global internet doesn’t exist. It’s a fiction.”

Rather, he said, most democracies enjoy an open internet – but other jurisdictions have pioneered “a completely different internet…. Based on heavy surveillance, very little individual privacy.”

“In coming years, you will see increasing use of the internet by authoritarian or somewhat semi-authoritarian governments to censor speech, to surveil individuals, to insist that data cannot flow openly from one jurisdiction to another – and that would be a great shame.”

Reflecting the growing top-level attention that nations are putting on cyber security, the panel highlighted the universal impact of tech giants regardless of country or culture.

That impact has, Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne said, proven disruptive in three key ways: the abuse of technology for disinformation; online harms from stalking, abuse and harassment; and the misuse of technology “by more authoritarian regimes and actors, including the oppression of people in terms of mass surveillance, or foreign interference” in elections.

“We’re all very alert to that,” she said.

Onus on governments

Rather than expecting technology giants to enforce social standards, Clegg called on governments to set “clear, democratically agreed guardrails that we all agree on” – and got his wish days later, when the Australian government announced it will move to end online anonymity to reduce online abuse.

Such guidelines were crucial in reining in abuse of the freedoms that open internets provide without falling into the trap of authoritarianism.

Most social media content is “good, innocent, and positive,” he said, noting that social-media platforms provide “ease of circulation to people who have bad intentions.”

And while Meta’s content-filtering efforts had reduced the incidence of hate speech to 0.03% of content, policing the remainder “is a moral minefield because you’re asking a private sector company to wade deep into moderating and acting against content that is perfectly legal.”

“You’ll never eliminate it in the same way that in a free society you’re not going to eliminate crime,” he said, “but you want to try and get it down to the absolute minimal level… the fundamental principles of privacy and free expression are under greater threat than many people appreciate.”

Clegg’s call for government consensus highlights the difficulties of forging a consensus about what is and isn’t acceptable online.

Such difficulties were played out in the headlines recently as the Australian government debated the controversial religious discrimination bill, which has laid down guidelines for regulating “statements of belief”.

Yet simply defining the conversation in terms of freedom of speech was far too narrow a scope to account for the massive societal impact that today’s tech giants control, warned Dr Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, India’s Minister of External Affairs, noting that “technology has always been a double-edged sword.”

“It has brought good, but with every good that it has brought, it has brought new vulnerabilities and new challenges,” he said.

“What is different today is that the impact it has on our daily lives, on our culture, on our psychology and on our behaviour is something of a totally different order.”

Clegg’s point about finding the right balance is, Jaishankar said, “a very, very legitimate issue…. On a GDP basis Google is the size of Australia and Facebook is bigger than the UK.”

“You have private companies that are of a scale and size that human history hasn’t seen. Their implications for what happens within and between societies is something very profound.”

Meta – the parent company of Faceook – has long been at the front of that debate, and Jaishankar took the opportunity to fire a shot across the company’s bow.

“We can’t have the tech world run on the 19th century principles of capitalism,” he said. “You can’t have data pillaging as the basis for a global business…. Because I’m confident about democracy, I’m confident that this too will be handled in the right way.”

Ultimately, Payne said, broadly accepted principles of human interaction were likely to prevail.

“One of the things that concerns me about the pace of technology and engagement is where it breaks down the usual boundaries of courtesies and respect,” she explained.

“I fear that a lot of that is lost – but it’s actually what gives a genuinely civilised society, and we should be able to expect civilised society online as we should expect it offline.”