Thursday 19 September 2019

Steve Dempsey: 'An Atlantic divide appears as Europe tackles the tech sector'

In recent days both France and Germany have been considering legislation and cooperation with the likes of Facebook and YouTube.. Stock Image
In recent days both France and Germany have been considering legislation and cooperation with the likes of Facebook and YouTube.. Stock Image
Steve Dempsey

Steve Dempsey

A stark divide is appearing between how Europe is continuing to crack down on the unfettered influence of social platforms, while the US defers to lobbying and received wisdom from the tech industry.

In recent days both France and Germany have been considering legislation and cooperation with the likes of Facebook and YouTube.

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In Germany some legislators want to make new hate-speech law more transparent and user-friendly. The law, called NetzDG (or Gesetz zur Verbesserung der Rechtsdurchsetzung in sozialen Netzwerken to give it its full name), stipulates that Facebook, YouTube, and other sites with more than two million users in Germany must take down posts containing hate speech or other criminal material within 24 hours. Platforms that fail to comply can be hit with fines ranging from €5m to €50m.

Is it working? Well, complaints are being made and the social platforms have put in teams and policies to respond. Facebook said in July it had received 886 reports of inappropriate content: 524 of these were removed or blocked. YouTube has been busier, receiving 214,827 concerns, resulting in 58,297 removals.

So what changes do Germans legislators want to make to NetzDG? First off they want to make it easier for users to find the forms needed to lodge a complaint. They also want increased fines for social platforms that offer meaningless replies to queries from find the required forms on social media platforms.

Germans are understandably wary of hate speech and surveillance. But while they are ensuring social media platforms take responsibility for their reach, they are also trying to improve policies for European tech firms. Angela Merkel's cabinet held a two-day retreat last week, to devise an artificial intelligence strategy. The plan, which won't be revealed until December, will reportedly make masses of data available to German researchers and developers, loosen some regulation, encourage entrepreneurship and try to prevent AI boffins from swapping Berlin for Beijing or Boston. Over in France, Facebook and the government are forging a relationship that can only be described as "it's complicated". They are going to cooperate to examine how Facebook has handled moderation to date. In 2019, French regulators will be given access to Facebook's internal processes and algorithms.

"I am delighted with this very innovative, experimental approach that will allow us to reflect very concretely on the best ways to ensure that the major platforms apply a high level of quality in the moderation of content," said Emmanuel Macron. Facebook new-boy, Nick Clegg, said the announcement was significant. "That model of co-regulation of the public tech sector is absolutely key," Facebook's vice president for Global Affairs and Communications said.

This is an interesting softly-softly approach from the French. They are starting small and informally and getting a look under the hood at a finely tuned engine. They can be praised for taking a non-combative approach, but also for getting to know the details of a company they may choose to regulate at some time in the future. France has insisted there should be a European approach to regulating tech companies. President Emmanuel Macron has criticised America for lacking political accountability and China for being overly centralised. "What is at stake is how we build a European model reconciling innovation and common good," he said earlier this year. "We have to work together to build this common framework."

What does that look like? Well, Macron has called GDPR a bit step forward. He supports a European tax on big tech companies, which would see them taxed on local revenues generated in each country. He has held direct discussions with tech CEOs about using technology for the common good. And the French government is going to check in with tech companies every six months to ensure they're keeping their promises around commitments to improve things.

There's no doubt that the European approach is making waves. And some technology CEOs are onboard. Apple's Tim Cook is now calling for a federal privacy law in the US, saying it's a necessary step in countering the "data industrial complex". But he would say that wouldn't he? Unlike Facebook, Google and others, Apple doesn't make money from tracking users, and any such regulation could give it a competitive edge in shifting high end, secure devices.

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