Friday 18 January 2019

No legislating for big tech - yet

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg testifies before a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on foreign influence operations on social media platforms on Capitol Hill in Washington earlier this week. Photo: Joshua Roberts/Reuters
Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg testifies before a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on foreign influence operations on social media platforms on Capitol Hill in Washington earlier this week. Photo: Joshua Roberts/Reuters
Steve Dempsey

Steve Dempsey

It's been an interesting seven days for social media platforms and big tech companies.

Last Sunday the BBC director-general, and the chief executives of Sky, BT, ITV and Talk Talk wrote an open letter to the Telegraph calling for greater regulation of social media and technology companies that encroach on the media space.

And later in the week, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, and Facebook's chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, testified at a US Senate hearing about moderation of online content and interference in elections. Google representatives were invited, but didn't show. The upshot is that it seems more likely than ever that some form of legislation or regulation for social media and online platforms is on the way - on both sides of the Atlantic.

Let's start with the letter from the UK broadcasters and telcos. It's central point was that they invest in the UK economy and infrastructure, pay taxes and are regulated by Ofcom. This is in contrast to the giants of Silicon Valley, which lawfully avoid UK taxes and are almost entirely unregulated.

"There is an urgent need for independent scrutiny of the decisions taken, and greater transparency," the letter says. "This is not about censoring the internet, it is about making the most popular internet platforms safer, by ensuring there is accountability and transparency over the decisions these private companies are already taking."

They've got a point. While traditional media companies are subject to regulation, the tech bros are free to do what they want. This means inconsistent policies around hate-speech, promises that artificial intelligence will solve all problems, and denials that online platforms have the legal or social responsibilities of a media company. They aren't beholden to anyone other than their shareholders and their customers. In effect this means a coven of bright but idealistic young men who live in Silicon Valley and have drunk the tech utopia Kool Aid are self-regulating the platforms they created, which have grown to have global influence. The reason they've gotten this far without regulation is the dominance of big tech's PR and lobbying machine, and the digital ignorance of legislators across the globe. But that's changing.

The UK government has promised a white paper on internet safety that will propose policies to "ensure Britain is the safest place in the world to be online" - hence the public lobbying from traditional media players for some form of regulation of social platforms. Europe's GDPR and upcoming ePrivacy Directive place the digital consumer in the driving seat around how their online personal information is used and by whom.

In Germany, the Netzwerkdurchsetzungsgesetz law (don't you just love German legislation titles) enacted in January ensures that social networks with more than two million users have 24 hours to delete posts that contain Nazi symbolism, Holocaust denial and hate speech. If they don't they can be fined up to €50m.

But it's in the US - the home of Apple, Facebook, Google and Amazon - where things really need to change. Claims that social media platforms are biased against right-wing media overshadowed everything else at this week's hearings, but regulation was pretty prominent subplot. "Congress is going to have to take action here," said the democratic Senator Mark Warner "The era of the Wild West in social media is coming to an end."

The tech companies do seem to realise that regulation is inevitable. "I do believe there is growing concern around power companies like ours hold," Twitter's Dorsey said. "People do see us as a digital public square and that comes with certain expectations."

But the platforms still want to regulate themselves. Mind you, some have stated their support for the Honest Ads Act, which would require companies to disclose how political advertisements are targeted and how much is spent on them.

But, to date, there's been no mention of any changes to the 1996 Communications Decency Act that states interactive media services aren't publishers, and aren't liable for any offending material uploaded, provided they take some action to take it down.

The US holds a prominent position in relation to how these new global platforms are regulated.

Sure, some regulator for social media that reports to Ofcom in the UK is needed - but until US legislators make the big tech platforms liable for defamation or copyright infringements, tackle misinformation or follow the lead of the EU with its GDPR, it'll take more than a strongly worded letter to change things for the better.

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