One early casualty of the current General Election campaign was Bethany Barker, who, after introducing Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn at a rally, resigned as General Secretary of Nottingham Labour Students after exposure of a number of racist, anti-semitic and homophobic messages on social media between 2012 and 2014.
Barker apologised for her remarks, emphasising that they were made several years earlier before she became a student and did not reflect her more adult point-of-view today. Her situation is one that has become familiar in the social media age – comments fired off on Twitter or Facebook without thought that come back to haunt at a later stage.
Three years ago, the European Court of Justice set in motion what was to become known as the Right to be Forgotten, a requirement that European Union citizens should be able to ask the like of Google to remove out-of-date information thrown by search results.
On the one hand, this means that EU citizens can have inaccurate and potentially damaging information removed from searches. On the other hand, it’s also a blunt instrument to allow criminals and other unsavoury types to wipe their slates clean and rewrite history.
This latter fear led many to oppose the new right as deeply flawed, not least the UK government, which openly decried the ruling from the ECJ and pledged to fight it ever being put into EU law. On the latter point, success has been limited – there’s a sizeable chunk of Right to be Forgotten in the forthcoming GDPR data protection rules.
But it is interesting to note, particularly in light of the ongoing assault on social media firms by governments all around the world, that the Conservative Party has had what looks like a politically-expedient change of heart – up to a point.
When it’s published this week, the Tory Manifeasto will contain a pledge to allow users of Facebook and Twitter (and other social platforms) to erase photos, messages and comments that might come back to embarass them – but only if this content was posted before they were 18 years of age. (So, ironically, as a Tory pledge it would have pretty handy for Labour activist Barker!).
That’s the PR-friendly, headline-grabbing element of the pledge. It will find little resistance and probably considerable appeal. especially to parents of kids who’ve done something stupid online that could screw up job applications in the future. There aren’t many of us who would particularly want to be judged today on what our 15 year old self said or did.
But there’s more to the Tory pledge than that. Social media companies will also face significant fines if they fail to stop people from “unintentionally” coming across pornography, hate speeches and other harmful material. There will be laws introduced to compel social media companies to respond when users flag potentially inappropriate content.
This is of course the logical extension of UK politicians outrage at what they perceive as refusal on the part of the YouTubes and Facebooks of the world to take prompt enough action to tackle offensive or extremist content online. This isn’t just a Tory stance. Labour’s Yvette Cooper, Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, has wrung more headlines out of this issue than perhaps anyone else, for example.
But the Tories have managed to get a spin on this into the election domain first, with Prime Minister Theresa May quoted as saying:
The internet has brought a wealth of opportunity but also significant new risks which have evolved faster than society’s response to them We want social media companies to do more to help redress the balance and will take action to make sure they do. These measures will help make Britain the best place in the world to start and run a digital business, and the safest place in the world for people to be online.
Responding to the plans, Antony Walker, Deputy CEO of UK technology association techUK, urged the Tories to consider the complexities of the issue and not rush into a populist response:
Tech companies already work hard to keep the online world safe and secure. Whilst tech companies, policy-makers and the third sector must always look at where further steps can be taken, it’s important to recognise that technological solutions themselves can never be a silver bullet. The challenges raised by the Prime Minister are as much social issues as technological ones.
Some of the detail in today’s announcement will need careful evaluation. Any initiatives should be developed on a clear evidence-based approach. Measures only just agreed in the Digital Economy Act 2017 should be given time to work. It is important that any requirements placed upon private companies to take down content are underpinned by a clear legal framework that is consistent with international norms and the positive benefits of a global open internet. We hope that the next Government will work closely with the private sector to understand and learn from best practice and what actually works on the ground.
The next Government will need the UK’s world leading tech sector to be an engine of growth over the next five years. The UK must continue to be a place where the brightest and best come to found grow and scale the next generation of world leading businesses. New legislation must always be carefully thought through, and we urge all political parties to avoid broad brush policy solutions to the complex challenges of the digital age.
If the Manifesto commitments are met, it could put the UK on (another) collision course with the European Comission, where Digital Vice President Andrus Ansip has said it’s not up to governments to decide that social media providers have full editorial responsibility for content on their sites. He was responding to Germany’s introduction of a draft law threatening €50 million fines if social media firms fail to take down hate speech or fake news quickly enough, so the Tory proposals already have a precedent in another EU state.
As noted above, I wouldn’t want to be judged today on what I said or did or believed at 14 or 15, so it’s hard to object too much to the basic principle of being able to sweep those ‘follies of youth’ under the online carpet. It’s harder to understand how this is actually going to work in practice, but then this is a political manifesto, so practicalities are less important than promises.
I am concerned that it’s the start of a slippery slope though. If under-18 year olds can get rid of their embarassing past, how long before a politician decides he or she could do with being able to erase a photo or a speech or a criminal conviction for perjury or fraud from history.
And I am very concerned about the threatening behaviour towards social media firms which don’t move at the speed of political opportunism to tackle extremism or offensive material. There are huge complexities here. While there are some types of content, such as child pornography, that few in civilised society would argue against being blocked and erased, there are other instances where what one person or organisation regards as offensive isn’t by others.
Just last week, telco Vodafone ended up with a massive PR faux pas when a customer tried to access the gay fashion/entertainment/lifestyle – not porn – magazine Attitude using his phone, but found it blocked as offensive material. When he queried this, he got the astonishing response of:
A business decision to censor? Hmm, not pulling punches there, are we?
As it turned out, Vodafone’s PR teams scrambled pretty quickly to assure customers that this was an error and that the person who’d replied with such an offensive – see, I find that offensive! – tweet was mistaken. But it makes a point – offence is not an absolute, so who’s going to decide what to slap a fine on YouTube or Facebook over?
It’s political playing to the galley – and the Tories won’t be the only ones doing it in this election cycle. They just got their headlines first.
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