Today, a Government in dire need of a good news story has mooted legislation resulting in the very opposite. The Conservative manifesto from 2017 said:
'Some people say that it is not for government to regulate when it comes to technology and the internet. We disagree.'
Now the Tories are delivering on their promise. But their attempt to police the internet should worry us all. The 'Online Harms' white paper calls for an independent watchdog to write a 'code of practice' for tech companies. Under the plans, tech firms will be held accountable for what their users post and share, and penalised if they fail to take down offending content swiftly – a move that presents a serious threat to innovation, competition and free speech.
Today's paper describes a collection of loosely-related problems that are created or facilitated by the internet, varying from the legitimate (child abuse images) to the poorly-defined (online disinformation and 'trolling'), and suggests strong enforcement powers to prevent them. This is deeply sinister. And the loose language with which the Government has set out these new plans looks like a thinly-veiled threat to the tech giants. (As an aside, is there a more Orwellian phrase than the paper’s 'Online harms'?)
The white paper forces platforms to become judges. Even for the biggest tech firms, this is patently beyond their capacity. The proposals could also lead to these firms being encouraged to simply delete substantial quantities of content rapidly when in doubt of its legality. This will be the obvious solution for social media companies inevitably struggling to determine what is actually illegal, satirical, or harmful but legal speech.
Britain need only look to Germany to see how these plans are likely to end in failure. The Netzwerkdurchsetzungsgesetz, a law aimed at combating fake news, which requires large platforms to take down 'obviously illegal' content within 24 hours of notification or face fines up to £44m, is an example of how damaging legislation can be. Shortly after the law came into force at the beginning of 2018, there were reports of Twitter deleting allegedly offensive statements from politicians and suspending an account belonging to an anti-racist German satirical magazine.
Following in Germany’s footsteps risks also sending a message that, contrary to the claims of our politicians, Britain is not open to business. If it pushes ahead with these plans, the Government will soon realise that its dual ambitions of being 'the safest place in the world to be online' and 'the best place to start a business' are simply incompatible.
This is especially obvious when you consider that regulation has a bias in favour of big companies. Large, well-resourced firms can cope with a growing web of regulations far better than small competitors. As the tech startup lobby group Coadec points out, these plans will entrench the tech giants, not punish them (it is notable that Facebook has provided little pushback to the proposals). Startups challenging incumbent tech companies do not have the revenues required to hire an army of moderators and develop the requisite AI. If the requirements continue to be strengthened, this could become an insurmountable barrier for start-ups.
Those banging the drum for increased regulation will claim the threat to free speech, innovation and small firm survival is a worthy trade-off for a 'safer' internet. Yet the wonder of websites like YouTube is that creators can communicate directly with the world, without being stifled by risk-averse editors.
It also begs the question: what if politicians had shoehorned in comparable legislation two decades ago? We might not have a Facebook, Twitter, or Google and societies – not to mention governments – would be poorer for it. What's more, the idea that tech firms are the enemy here ignores the great lengths companies already go to in ensuring illegal content (such as child abuse, terrorist propaganda) is removed from their platforms.
As a parent, I’m well aware of the risks that lurk in cyberspace. But the solution isn’t heavy-handed regulation, it’s old-fashioned parenting. It is my responsibility to have open discussions with my children about what is suitable, how to use privacy settings, or combat online bullying. The Government should butt out.
Indeed, a far better approach when it comes to young people and the internet would be to make parents aware of the risks in a reasoned way. This is key: the moral panic about social media may prove reminiscent of previously overblown claims linking violent video games to aggressive behaviour; in reality, more recent studies show no correlation – and some evidence that video game playing actually reduces violent incidents.
In the end, nobody will be satisfied by the decisions social media companies make to censor certain content – for some it will always be too strict, for others too liberal. The best compromise is surely for platforms to mitigate risk as best they can by pro-actively moderating distasteful or illegal content – while allowing for the free exchange of ideas and allowing for competition between platforms. Shifting liability to platforms or creating strict penalties for inadequate compliance will threaten innovation when Britain needs it most.