Steve Dempsey: 'How to police the online giants?'
Facebook moved fast and broke things. Big important things like the democratic process. And it made a lot of money doing it. But now regulators and legislators in different jurisdictions are waking up to the fact that this troublesome teenager may have done serious damage and should be regulated in some way.
But Facebook is a global problem child, and each country has its own idea about what regulation might entail. In the last week, the UK's digital, culture, media and sport (DCMS) select committee showed its hand. In a detailed and damning report, it said companies like Facebook shouldn't be allowed to behave like 'digital gangsters' that consider themselves above the law.
The report accuses Mark Zuckerberg of behaving contemptuously towards legislators by refusing to appear in front of committees. It also claimed the social network was deliberately obtuse: "the management structure of Facebook is opaque to those outside the business and this seemed to be designed to conceal knowledge of and responsibility for specific decisions".
Facebook responded to the report by stating it supported privacy legislation, had taken steps to improve transparency around political advertising, increased the size of the teams working on abusive content and invested in artificial intelligence to tackle the problem. "While we still have more to do, we are not the same company we were a year ago," said Karim Palant, the company's UK public policy manager.
But while Facebook may be the main offender the report is directed at social media business and online advertising overall. It calls for a compulsory code of ethics for tech companies overseen by independent regulator, which would be able to launch legal action against companies found to breach the code. All social media platforms should be responsible for removing harmful content, including proven sources of disinformation. And legislators have work to do too; the DCMS report recommends that UK law should better define digital campaigning, and acknowledge the role of unpaid campaigns and Facebook groups in influencing elections and referendums. It also claims there has been clear and proven Russian influence in foreign elections. Legislation needs to keep up to date with the latest technological developments, and should explicitly deal with foreign players trying to illegally influence the democratic process. The committee even analysed web traffic to its own reports to show just how interested Russian audiences are in what it has to say. Almost 20pc of its unique page views came from Moscow, while 18pc of its unique page views came from London.
The UK isn't an outlier. Legislators across the world are beginning to realise the dangers of platforms that can court huge audiences without any oversight and without the responsibility of traditional media entities. In Europe we've seen the arrival of the General Data Protection Regulation, which gives European citizens control over their data. Plus, the EU ePrivacy directive, which covers tracking and monitoring is on the way.
In Germany, the Network Enforcement Act ensures tech companies remove hate speech from their sites within 24 hours, or face fines of up to €20m. In France, a new law gives judges powers to order the immediate removal of online articles that they believe amounts to disinformation during election campaigns. It also allows the French national broadcasting agency to suspend foreign TV channels that deliberately disseminate false information.
In the US there's the California Consumer Privacy Act, which gives California residents rights around their personal data; to know what personal information companies collect, what's happening to that information - who it's sold to and shared with, and to block the sale or sharing of that information.
Perhaps even more tellingly, the US Federal Trade Commission is mulling over how heavily it should come down on Facebook following the Cambridge Analytica scandal. A fine of up to $5bn has reportedly been mooted, but a decision could be months away.
So the tide seems to be turning and proper regulation for online platforms is inching ever closer. Just like a square peg won't fit in a round hole, there's increasing awareness that the VC-driven economic logic of modern surveillance capitalism isn't a good fit with an open and engaged democracy.
Without proper checks and balances, we'll be heading for a future of multiple echo chambers, where inequality of access to information is as dangerous to society as economic inequality.
Sunday Indo Business