I was amused and appalled in equal measure at the revelation last week that Google is currently paying the European Union (EU) more in fines than it does in tax. This emerged in a week in which the subject of regulating social media platforms was well to the fore in UK political circles to coincide with Internet Safety Day.
UK Digital Minister Margot James talked up a white paper being produced by the Department of Digital Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) which will be followed up by a public consultation over the summer. Then, apparently, there will be action. James said:
Internet companies have always enjoyed legal protection from liability for user generated content. This laissez faire environment has led some companies to pursue growth and profitability with little regard for the security and interests of their users. There is far too much bullying, abuse, misinformation and manipulation online as well as serious and organised crime online.
For too long the response from many of the large platforms has fallen short. There have been no fewer than fifteen voluntary codes of practice agreed with platforms since 2008. Where we are now is an absolute indictment of a system that has relied far too little on the rule of law.
So what does James Conservative government intend to do about this? She says that the end result of the consultation:
will set out new legislative measures to ensure that the platforms remove illegal content and prioritise the protection of users, especially children, young people and vulnerable adults. It will also include ambitious measures to support continued education and awareness for all users and to promote the development and adoption of new safety technologies. We want to get to a place where we can enjoy the huge benefits of new technology has to offer, without our children, and other vulnerable individuals, being put at risk of serious harm.
That’s pretty buzzword-compliant in its ambitions. It might of course end up depending on whether the Conservative government is still in power by the end of the summer - and with the current febrile pre-Brexit climate, betting on anything in politics more than a week ahead is a bold gambit!
But if the Tories do fall from power and the opposition Labour Party takes charge, the pressure on social media firms is only likely to get tougher. Labour Deputy Leader Tom Watson has issued a call to address “structural issues of the digital market”. An outspoken critic of Facebook and its CEO Mark Zuckerberg - “an arrogant corporate elite and a coward” - Watson argues:
At the centre of this crisis is an imbalance of power created by data monopolies and a distorted market. Each year, businesses make billions by extracting and monetising personal data from each and every one of us. And yes, they offer us a service in return, But only worth a fraction of the fortune they gain. This is Surveillance Capitalism.
The power of tech needs to be steered back towards public interest, he demands, and that leads to a conclusion:
We can’t afford a laissez faire approach to regulation any longer. Government has been dazzled by the scale of corporate profit for far too long, without questioning how much of that value reaches the bulk of the population. We must rebalance the digital ecosystem towards the many, not the few. To do this, we need to address the harms caused by the so-called Attention Economy. The Internet remains an open space for speech and assembly. But that is not where the money is. The business model is simple: track everything that everyone does online.
Promising a “new social contract fit for the digital age” to adjust the “power dynamic between monopoly tech platforms and users”. And that means a new regulatory regime is necessary, he says:
We must hold global tech platforms accountable with clear rules of the road, and align innovation with public welfare. The scale of the largest companies is rightly the subject of scrutiny, with consumers and businesses all subject to the whim of a single over-mighty platform provider. We should take seriously the calls to break them up if it is in the public interest.
Tough talk, but there’s one immediate problem - the UK Parliament can’t scare Zuckerberg enough even to get on a plane and answer a few questions from legislators. So what chance is there a UK government, especially if it’s a post-Brexit, non-EU government, can realistically wield enough power to effect such a break up? Watson is undaunted:
I don’t subscribe to the argument that they’re global companies that can’t be touched.
It’s certainly true that we have to work within existing international structures to regulate monopolies. But these companies also exist within UK markets, and are subject to UK law including competition regulation
Nevertheless, in an age of Make America Great Again political in Washington, is it likely that there be any appetite to take such action against a US tech firm, especially in the run-up to a 2020 Presidential Election? The lame performance of US legislators during Zuckerberg’s ‘apology tour’ last year suggests that while there are the right noises being made in some quarters, the chances of a break-up are remote.
So are we dependent on self-regulation? If we are, then there are a few signs of optimism to be had. For example, social media firms are getting better at removing hate speech, according to 2018 European Commission (EC) stats. Some 72% of illegal speech was removed during the year from leading platforms, and 89% of content flagged up was reviewed within 24 hours, up from 40% in 2016.
That’s the right direction of travel, although it clearly leaves a lot of room for improvement, as Vera Jourova, European Commissioner for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality, points out:
Let me be very clear, the good results of this monitoring exercise don't mean the companies are off the hook. We will continue to monitor this very closely, and we can always consider additional measures if efforts slow down.
Meanwhile Instagram has pledged to remove and ban images of self-harm following the death of a UK teenager who was found to have accessed material related to depression and suicide on her account. Facebook’s Global Head of Safety Antigone Davis said in a blogpost that the decision was taken after consulting with experts:
These experts unanimously reaffirmed that Facebook should allow people to share admissions of self harm and suicidal thoughts, but should not allow people to share content promoting it…But the experts also advised that some graphic images of self-harm, particularly cutting, can have the potential to unintentionally promote self-harm even when they are shared in the context of admission or a path to recovery. As a result, based on their feedback, we will no longer allow graphic cutting images even in the context of admission and we will begin enforcing this policy in the coming weeks.
Again, that’s good - if overdue - but it doesn’t mean that there’s no need for a tougher regulatory regime to be imposed or that social media platforms can be left to do the right thing of their own accord. One of the lobbying challenges in Brussels and Washington during this year will be to convince legislators that they can be,
For his part, Zuckerberg, during the firm’s most recent analyst conference call, laid out his stall:
Right now, there's a lot of negativity about the impact of technology, and some of it's fair and some of it's misplaced. And we, in the tech industry overall, should be scrutinized heavily because we play a role in many people's lives. My approach here is to listen to the critique first, to work on addressing our issues, figure out what we believe are the most important principles to uphold and then go engage in the debate.
And I feel like we've come out of 2018 not only making real progress on important issues but having a clear sense of what we believe are the right ways to move forward. Now, we're still going to make mistakes along the way, but we now have a clearer sense of the path ahead and we're ready to work with people to understand our role and move towards good outcomes, whether that's regulation on content or data, cooperation on shared threats, working openly to make sure AI best serves people, or just standing up for the kind of open and connected world that we all want to see.
In terms of regulation overall, I think that, that's going to be very important.
UK politico Watson makes some very good points in his campaigning, but he’s deluded if he believes that Facebook or anyone else is going take seriously break up threats from a Brexit Britain without the group force of the EU and in search of a trade deal with the US. That’s howling in the wind.
The EU stands more chance and the EC has shown itself more than willing to push for new regulatory regimes, often too willing! But at present there’s a regime in the Oval Office that cites the EU as an economic enemy of the US and whose response to attempts by Brussels to break up American firms is most likely only to result in an early morning Twitter storm.
None of this is to say that pressure shouldn’t continue to be placed on the social media giants and or that there shouldn’t be an ongoing debate about regulatory regimes. But for now, the headline-grabbing ‘something must be done’ rhetoric around controls and regulation and legislation remains essentially that - rhetoric.