Monday 19 August 2019

UK places Facebook in its crosshairs - but is it just tough-talking hot air?

Analysis

Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg
Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg

Adrian Weckler Technology Editor

'The era of self-regulation for online companies is over," claimed Jeremy Wright, Britain's digital secretary.

He was speaking in the wake of the latest initiative to try to curb the worst excesses of what happens on social networks.

The UK's new plan - to hold companies such as Facebook and Google more strictly accountable for not blocking harmful content such as incitement to terrorism and child sexual exploitation - sounds like the start of better online policing.

It follows the lead of Australia, which last week passed some of the world's toughest laws around objectionable social media content, including new sanctions which would see tech executives jailed for not dealing with the problem.

But is the UK move enforceable or just more hot air from a political class which talks tough but doesn't take action when it comes to specific examples?

The British plan centres on appointing an independent regulator tasked with enforcing the tougher new standards - but there are a hundred questions around the process and powers this regulator might pursue. The legal, policy and regulatory teams employed by companies such as Facebook will take some matching.

It is inevitable there will be a negotiation process with Facebook as to what the new regulator can and can't do. Arguably, that has already begun: the UK government is holding a three-month 'industry consultation' over the powers and processes of the new position before it proceeds. That basically means meetings with Facebook, Google and a small handful of others.

According to the British proposals, sanctions include the companies being banned in the UK. While an ultimate sanction has to be a possibility of last recourse for any law-making body, it is difficult to see how banning Facebook or Google is a realistic proposal.

China does this and, to be sure, there are some entrenched industries which still long for a pre-Facebook, pre-Google era. But in the real world, this seems undeliverable.

Irish Independent

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