Politicians and the internet still don’t seem to get on. Yesterday Labour’s Lucy Powell put forward a bill proposing two peculiar new suggestions for tackling online hate: first, that moderators and administrators (the people that run online groups and forums) be held legally responsible for what’s posted in their groups. Second, that the name of any large Secret Facebook group, and the number of members it has, be made public
Powell has pulled together an impressive array of signatories, including David Lammy and Jacob Rees-Mogg. It’s nice to see that bi-partisanship is still alive and well, even if the proposal itself is completely unworkable. I understand the aspiration – we need to stem the flow of online hate, and make tech companies more accountable. Indeed, I’ve written a whole book about it. But this isn’t the answer.
Let’s start with the suggestion that moderators be made legally accountable for what’s posted, since this is the least bad idea of the two. The imagined scenario is some nasty little man setting up a nasty little group where he’s (finally!) held to account for all the untrue, hateful, illegal messages that are posted under his command. Yes, such groups exist of course. But the reality is that there are thousands more harmless groups on Facebook and elsewhere run by time-pressed hobbyists with zero knowledge of the law. Millions of us would be taking on the legal responsibilities of a newspaper editor with none of the time, money, staff or know-how.
Every law has unintended consequences, but these are entirely and utterly predictable. Why not simply toughen up what we have? If illegal content is posted and reported, give Facebook 24 hours to get rid of it or hand down a fine. This is what’s currently happening in Germany. Surely the pressure should be put on Facebook to sort this out, rather than some hapless trainspotter, student politics officer, football fan, healthy eating advocate, or whoever else has been so foolish as to set up an online group.
The second suggestion – making public the existence of Secret Facebook groups with over 500 members – seems even worse to me. (For those who don’t know, there are three types of Facebook groups. Open, which everyone can see and ask to join. Closed, which everyone can see, but are invitation only. And Secret, which are invitation only and their very existence is hidden from public view).
This appears to be based on the idea that Facebook, and even the police, are completely unaware and powerless here. In fact Facebook can and does ban Secret groups that breach terms and conditions; and it can and does hand over information to authorities if requested with a warrant.
Facebook could probably do this faster and more proactively – and this should be the focus of any efforts. Because we hear a lot about hate and extremism, it's easy to forget that (in my experience) the majority of Secret groups aren’t about that, and might have reason to stay totally hidden. After all, even just the name and existence of a group can say a lot. Here are some examples which I’ve made up, but which I think prove the point:
Russians in London Sergei Skripal Support Group (this would be infiltrated within minutes, of course)
Manchester Demo Against Fascists 1st Saturday of October
Saudis for LGBT Rights
Disgruntled Department of Health Employees
Islington Jews Against Corbyn
Jamie Bartlett Surprise Birthday Party next weekend.
That last one is not likely to have more than half a dozen members so would stay hidden, but you get the point. Anyway, the bill only wants groups with 500 people to be publicised, but these things have a nasty habit of racheting up once started. It won’t be long before a new limit of 250 was proposed, bringing Whatsapp groups into play. As much as I’d like to see all the various names of pro-Corbyn / anti-Corbyn / pro-May / anti-May groups, I don’t think it would do much for our democracy.
I’m also not convinced the police or MI5 would be too happy if a radical Islamist group was named, especially one they had infiltrated or set up. I do know who would be happy, however. The world’s autocrats, who would certainly demand that Facebook does the same for them. If liberal Britain can do this, why not them?
I'm often very critical of Facebook and co. I'm glad politicians are at least summoning up the courage to take the platforms on, since we do need to establish some form of democratic control over them. But this is not it. If we've learnt anything over the last few months, it's that privacy matters.