Will new laws tame the tech giants?
The long simmering ‘techlash’ has boiled over into global consciousness. The swelling laundry list of grievances against the social media companies covers nearly every societal ill imaginable. From massive privacy breaches to facilitating foreign meddling in political elections, from promoting terrorism to causing depression in young people, there seems to be no shortage of reasons why once trusted brands are losing their shine.
Even the public’s embrace of technology itself has been labelled a full-blown addiction. In China parents send their children to military style bootcamps to pry them from their screens. The newspapers and magazines that have survived the internet now struggle to adapt to ever-changing algorithms that funnel headlines into the news feeds of Facebook or Google or Yahoo to harvest eyeballs and advertising revenues.
The digital giants enjoy almost monopolistic power – wealthy, powerful, unaccountable, they are also, compared with conventional news media, unregulated.
From many quarters, now, the chorus is: something must be done. But what?
Safety, free speech and privacy
In Britain, a bundle of initiatives designed to coerce social media companies into better behaviour has been loosely tied together under the mysterious new Digital Charter.
This tackles everything from child sexual abuse and cyberbullying to terrorist propaganda. There are positive initiatives like the Internet Safety Strategy to improve the public’s digital literacy and increase social media company transparency.
Other proposals are more concerning. Fast take-down requirements, for example. Violent extremist content and child pornography are major problems that must be addressed, but the British proposal to impose heavy fines if social media platforms fail to remove illegal content within two hours, would severely damage freedom of speech. It would exceed even Germany’s strict €50 million penalty for illegal content not removed within 24 hours.
Fast take-down requires automated filters because human monitors are unable to review material quickly enough. ‘We know that automatic technology like this can heavily disrupt the terrorists’ action’ said the now former Home Secretary Amber Rudd in relation to a new anti-ISIS superfilter. But algorithms do not understand context. Parodies, studies and commentary about terrorist propaganda will be censored too.
The censorship detection tool Blocked.org.uk has documented thousands of instances of websites wrongfully blocked by default ISP filters because algorithms can’t grasp context. Resources to prevent sexual abuse or to help survivors, rehabilitation centres and other counselling websites have been repeatedly mislabelled as ‘adult content’ and blocked on major networks across the UK. Other victims of over-blocking include a women’s news website, a blog about the Syrian war, and bizarrely, a London watch-making business.
The threat of large fines gives platforms every reason to over-block or censor. Why invest in deciphering the finer points of free expression when a mistake could cost millions?
A glaring omission within the Digital Charter is legislation defining clear standards for acceptable online content. Hard to define terms like ‘hate speech’ and ‘violent extremism’ are addressed by laws pertaining to the real world, but online versions of these important legal terms – such as those relating to streaming content – don’t exist and this invites trouble.
In the absence of government leadership or guidance, the major internet platforms have set their own definitions and launched initiatives to develop yet more technological solutions. Whether these remote transnational coalitions are attuned to public concern or are just trying to pre-empt harsh legislation remains to be seen.
This month the European Union introduces the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). This welcome development extends individuals’ control over their personal data with requirements like clearer opt-ins and restrictions on how long companies can hold onto your data. The rest of the world would do well to match these standards – and if they hope to keep doing business with the EU.
Britain is incorporating GDPR into a new Data Protection Bill currently making its way through the House of Commons. Unfortunately it contains an exemption that holds the personal date of foreign nationals living in the UK to a weaker standard. Given the Home Office’s notoriously high administrative error rate in immigration cases, no-one’s data privacy will be safe unless this exemption is dropped from the Bill.
The tech gods are great for America’s bottom line so US lawmakers are loath to challenge them. It remains to be seen if the scandal over Facebook, Cambridge Analytica, the breach of 87 million people’s data privacy and the ensuing class action lawsuit, will substantially change the stance of US legislators and appetite for regulation.
In December 2017 the US authorities appeared to going in quite the opposite direction and to consolidate the monopolistic power of the tech giants. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), an unelected body appointed by the president, moved to repeal net neutrality protections.
Net neutrality is the idea that all data should be treated the same in terms of how it comes and goes from your device. It ensures your friend’s blog transmits to your palm at the same speed as the New York Times – thus delivering the original free-speech empowerment vision of the the internet’s founders. Net neutrality applies to legal content, so it does not mean nuclear bomb manuals or pirated content are made freely available online. But it does give small outlets with big stories a chance to compete with massive conglomerates.
Unfortunately internet service providers (IPSs) have powerful monetary incentives to favour some content over others. Paid prioritization was recently legalized in the US, despite widespread public opposition, allowing ISPs to charge those who can pay to have their websites delivered faster than competitors in a special data fast lane. Half of Americans have a ‘choice’ of just one ISP, leaving them no alternative if their provider plays favourites.
Not surprisingly, 83 per cent of Americans surveyed wanted to keep net neutrality.
Also unsurprisingly, Ajit Pai, chair of the FCC seeking to scrap net neutrality, is a former lawyer with Verizon – a big internet service provider.
Some have become experts at exploiting loopholes in regions thought to have strong net neutrality protections, like the EU. The emergence of zero-rating practices – which favour select apps and websites over others by making them free to users – tilts the digital marketplace against the small players.
When internet companies manipulate legal grey areas with practices like zero-rating democracy is brushed aside. But we can learn from parts of the world where resistance is strong and organized. Zero-rating practices were recently struck down in Portugal and Facebook’s ‘Free Basics’ programme – to deliver impoverished users a free but limited window to the internet based on Facebook’s preferences – was famously banned by regulators in India.
In the US, despite the power of the telecommunications lobby and the FCC’s blatant disregard for public opinion, the demise of net neutrality is far from certain. The repeal can be challenged in court or overruled by Congress. Meanwhile the Justice Department is attempting to block the mega-merger of mass media and telecommunications companies TimeWarner and AT&T.
Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has had to publicly apologize for his company’s activities and failures, not only to stop the massive breach of users’ privacy but also to report it when it happened in 2015.
The power dynamics appears, for the moment, to have shifted somewhat. But as always, concern over a company’s unfair advantage in a particular market pales next to the far bigger question of whether big business is overpowering democracy itself.
Wherever governments fail to channel the current techlash into serious law, we will have our answer.
Mike Morel is campaigns manager with The Open Rights Group.
Look out for the June issue of New Internationalist magazine on the topic of A better media is possible.