You should be suspicious of the Government’s plans to regulate the internet. Not because you think all politicians are control freaks and killjoys out to ruin your online fun. Not even because you think this is the end of freedom and the harbinger of totalitarian tyranny. You should be suspicious of the Government’s proposed regulator because the tech bosses want it.
This week the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport published the Online Harms White Paper, which proposes legislation to impose a “duty of care” on any website where users can view and share content. It would create a legal framework, standards of behaviour and enforcement of those standards by a regulator who could impose fines on businesses and individuals that fail to comply.
Unsurprisingly, critics say it opens the door to state control of the internet, similar to China, while others complain that it’s not broad enough to capture the scale of online violence and pornography.
However, the firms that will be most affected by the proposed regulation are unlikely to oppose it. Contrary to what you might think, the social media company at the centre of concern about online harm will embrace it. Regulation was almost Mark Zuckerberg’s idea.
A week prior to the publication of the Government’s White Paper, the Facebook founder and chief executive wrote an article for the Washington Post newspaper, calling for regulation of the internet. Zuckerberg wants governments to set baselines for what is acceptable internet content and he wants regulators to “require companies to build systems for keeping harmful content to a bare minimum”.
He wants legal standards that will determine when advertising is political and what should be allowed, and worldwide privacy rules similar to the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation.
Zuckerberg is not quite washing his hands of responsibility for what appears on Facebook but he is certainly placing the ball firmly in the lap of government and inviting politicians to run with it. At one level, this is simply good sense. According to Zuckerberg, lawmakers complain Facebook has too much power over speech. “Frankly, I agree” he says. “I’ve come to believe that we shouldn’t make so many important decisions about speech on our own.”
His modest proposal is, however, a little disingenuous because Facebook and every other social media business are spending a vast amount of money and executive time trying to stop criminals and the mad and the bad from undermining their business model.
Facebook employs an internal content police force of thousands who check posts for inappropriate content. For Zuckerberg, the problem is not the big philosophical question about whether speech should be controlled; it’s the nitty-gritty of where the line is drawn, for what age group and whether American cultural mores are acceptable in Poland.
Wouldn’t it be great, thinks the Facebook founder, if I could just hand this whole tangled mess over to a regulator who would establish detailed criteria so our algorithms would spot the bad stuff and delete it so fast no one would notice. End of story, thinks Zuckerberg, as he calculates how many content-checkers could be released from Facebook employment.
The tech giants have never really had much of a problem with government control over what appears on their platforms. What the tech platforms fear most is anti-trust regulation, regulatory curbs on their businesses’ expansion and, worst of all, the forced demerger of parts of the tech platforms.
The worst outcome for Facebook is not regulation of how it runs its business; it is the possibility that its business will be divided into parts.
That Facebook will be forced to split its roles into platform provider and publisher, the former regulated as a monopoly utility and the latter regulated as a producer of content, just like this newspaper.
Much better, from Zuckerberg’s perspective, to embrace government efforts to stop bad people from using Facebook. Ultimately, it’s an impossible task but it focuses minds on detail rather than the big picture question: whether Facebook, Google, Amazon and Netflix are just too big to be allowed to penetrate our homes and collect data about so many aspects of our lives. The tech platforms are going way beyond entertainment, their tentacles are already reaching financial services and even healthcare.
Being regulated is not so bad. Once you are holding hands with government, almost anything is within your grasp.