As the technological realm becomes more pervasive, whom can we trust? Each week, Liberty Nation brings new insight into the fraudulent use of personal data, breaches of privacy, and attempts to filter our perception.
Up until now, the online world has been fairly free from government intervention, but that appears to be changing. Is it time for lawmakers to step in and make sure the internet is safe for all users, or is that move sure to backfire?
Tougher Than North Korea?
“‘We need stricter internet regulation — the strictest in the world!’ said no normal person in Britain ever.” That is what James Delingpole wrote in Breitbart London upon the release of a U.K. government document in April. By his measure, British Culture Secretary Jeremy Wright and Home Secretary Sajid Javid (responsible for internal affairs, policing, and immigration) may not be “normal” people, as the pair has launched the “Online Harms” white paper that proposes to create a first-of-its-kind independent regulator to keep internet users safe from “harms.” According to a tweet by Javid, “Our world leading proposals will ensure social media companies keep their users safe, or face serious consequences.”
“The era of self-regulation for online companies is over. Voluntary actions from industry to tackle online harms have not been applied consistently or gone far enough …. We want the U.K. to be the safest place in the world to go online … our proposals for new laws will help make sure everyone in our country can enjoy the Internet safely.”
As laid out in a press release, the regulator would impose a range of new obligations for online service providers, including a “statutory ‘duty of care’” over users, and new codes of practice. According to Javid, “The tech giants and social media companies have a moral duty to protect the young people they profit from. Despite our repeated calls to action, harmful and illegal content – including child abuse and terrorism – is still too readily available online.” The key selling points for the proposals are child safety (eliminating sexual grooming, etc.) and preventing the spread of terrorism – two goals that few oppose. But, as is often the case, one doesn’t have to look too far to detect some troubling attempts at population control thrown into the mix.
Social media platforms will be forced to publish “transparency reports on the amount of harmful content on their platforms and what they are doing to address this,” but what exactly is “harmful content”? Other ill-defined practices to be stopped include trolling, hate crimes, extremist content and activity, intimidation, and the spreading of disinformation. There will “be requirements to minimise the spread of misleading and harmful disinformation with dedicated fact checkers, particularly during election periods.” Of course, the regulator will be “mindful” not to infringe on users’ rights.
Facebook Wants Regulation
One’s first response might be to assume that social media and other online companies would resist government regulation on the basis that it would limit their power, but perhaps that is not true. Mark Zuckerberg recently wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post advocating for legislative action addressing online content – indicating that the U.S. may be on the same path as Britain when it comes to online control. “I believe we need a more active role for governments and regulators,” he wrote. “By updating the rules for the Internet, we can preserve what’s best about it — the freedom for people to express themselves and for entrepreneurs to build new things — while also protecting society from broader harms.”
There are those pesky “harms” again.
The Facebook CEO recommends regulation in the areas of harmful content, election integrity, privacy, and data portability (the ability to share information across multiple platforms). And he, too, hopes for the creation of independent “third-party bodies to set standards governing the distribution of harmful content and to measure companies against those standards.”
In some respects, Facebook is way ahead of Javid and Wright, already implementing some of the U.K.’s proposed rules, such as reports on how they are working to remove content they deem inaccurate or harmful. In terms of privacy, he advocates the U.S. adoption of European-style GDPR regulation.
Why has Zuckerberg come out in favor of government action? Is this a PR stunt, or does he see a business opportunity that could cement his position at the top of the online pack? While it’s often assumed that regulation would dampen Silicon Valley’s control over the internet, perhaps the opposite is true. His final recommendation is that “regulation should guarantee the principle of data portability. If you share data with one service, you should be able to move it to another.” He claims this would enable industry competition but does not mention that such a rule would contribute to his stated goal of merging Facebook with its companies Instagram and WhatsApp into one master information-sharing service.
In his Breitbart article, Delingpole criticized traditional newspapers for going easy on the white paper proposal, arguing that they hope the government will “regulate their online competitors out of business.” He said, “This is crony capitalism/rent-seeking in excelsis: if you can’t beat the competition through fair means, close them down by pulling strings in government instead.” Perhaps Silicon Valley giants are playing the same game in order to gain online supremacy. It already has been noted that recent European regulation may crush smaller voices on the internet; if Facebook and its fellow Silicon Valley titans have not only the competition but individual voices sewn up, there is no limit to the power they could wield. As argued by Wayne Crews of CNS News:
“The government oversight Facebook is calling for would mean that no rival could emerge that addresses controversial ideas of certain politically disapproved kinds of both foreseeable and unforeseeable nature. Such ‘deplatforming’ will be preordained, baked into the ecosystem of new post-Facebook networks that could be created. This development actually would, if fostered by governments, turn Facebook into [a] so-called ‘essential facility’ …”
From mere social media platform to “essential facility” – why wouldn’t Zuckerberg and his ilk want government intervention?
Questions, Comments, Snarks?
To regulate or not to regulate, that is the question. Rather than issuing recommendations, perhaps it is a good time to ask readers what their thoughts are. On the one hand, a lack of regulation seems to put undue power in the hands of corporations that have no obligation to observe our rights, but in a world where governments seem to care less and less about liberty, could their input just make things worse?
That’s all for this week’s edition of You’re Never Alone. Check back next Monday to find out what’s happening in the digital realm and how it impacts you.