Consequences matter. If there was one clear message from football’s temporary boycott of social media earlier this month, in protest at the torrent of online hate experienced disproportionately by black players, that was it.
The former England striker Ian Wright has said that he’d almost given up reporting the vile stuff he receives daily because nothing ever seemed to happen to the perpetrators. “It makes you feel very dehumanised. You feel like there’s nothing you can do, you’re helpless,” he said. So two cheers, at least, for the inclusion in this week’s Queen’s speech of a long-delayed online safety bill aimed at holding big tech more accountable. Who wouldn’t agree with the culture secretary Oliver Dowden’s desire to rid social media of what he called “the bile and the threats”?
For all the good social media brings, it has also created unrivalled opportunities for the resentful, the bitter and the frankly sociopathic to reach those they couldn’t previously touch. Children have been groomed for sexual exploitation, terrorists radicalised, the gullible sucked into conspiracy theories, teenage girls coached to self-harm, and hate normalised on platforms that have faced too little by way of consequence. Unlike some of the straw men set up by this Queen’s speech for ministers to knock down noisily, this problem is real. But as with too many of this government’s grand plans, it’s one thing to announce you’re going to fix the internet, and another to actually do it.
The case for action is so overwhelming that even Silicon Valley’s smarter players are actively lobbying for governments to step in and regulate them, like teenagers whose illicit party has been gatecrashed by some scary-looking characters and who just want an adult to step in and deal with the problem they unwittingly created. Facebook’s vice-president for global affairs, Nick Clegg, has long argued that its job would be easier if “some of the sensitive decisions we have to make were instead taken by people who are democratically accountable to the people at large” not by a private company. Let someone else take the flak for deciding whether Donald Trump should be banned for inciting riots, or in what circumstances posting an exposed nipple is acceptable. Judging by this rather vague and in places contradictory bill, however, it won’t be that easy.
The government’s proposals require tech companies to curb the use of their platforms for illegal purposes, under threat of sanction from Ofcom. So far, so clear. But it also imposes a “duty of care” on the biggest companies to prevent activities that aren’t necessarily illegal, but are potentially harmful – capable of causing “physical or psychological impact” – while simultaneously safeguarding the right to free expression, protecting political campaigners’ right to argue their case online and avoiding taking sides in political arguments.
All of which sounds eminently sensible, until you try applying it all in practice. Dowden ducked the question when asked by ITV’s Robert Peston whether calling gay men “tank-topped bumboys”, as Boris Johnson once did in a newspaper column, should be outlawed online. But that’s almost the easy bit.
To say that biological sex is real, and immutable, would be seen in some circles as transphobic hate speech, and in others as a perfectly reasonable statement of fact. Who decides what’s harmful to whom when teenagers on TikTok are shocked and upset by very different things to their parents on Mumsnet? What about comments that aren’t discriminatory but are obnoxious, stupid or exhausting enough to cause cumulative “psychological impacts” if you’re swamped with them? Where does an individual’s responsibility to walk away end and the platform’s responsibility to stop people feeling they have to leave begin? And how can a site not take sides in political arguments where one party chooses a liar or a bigot for a leader, and the other doesn’t?
Answering these questions will shape popular culture profoundly, making the still vacant position of the Ofcom chair – contenders for which reportedly include the former Daily Mail editor-in-chief Paul Dacre – very powerful indeed. But they will also require from tech executives the judgment of Solomon, or at the very least, editorial skills more usually demanded of the BBC and newspaper executives – who won’t, incidentally, be covered by this bill. Online journalism is exempt in the interests of press freedom, but, interestingly, so is below-the-line comment by readers, meaning that what a person can write underneath a tabloid article about Meghan Markle may diverge sharply from what can be said about her on Twitter – or indeed in a student union debate, where a separate free speech bill will guarantee the right of controversialists to sue for compensation if they’re no-platformed by universities.
What’s the guiding principle here, the one rule that makes the boundaries of free speech clear to everyone? There isn’t one, partly because Dowden is right that in a democracy there are some things politicians shouldn’t dictate, and partly because setting hard-and-fast rules on this stuff is like nailing jelly to a moving wall. Yet the success of this bill depends in some ways on pretending that there is; that deep down we know what’s right, and that social media companies therefore have the power to fix things, if only they’re threatened with the right stick. Well, maybe. But if not, then the story of regulating big tech may continue to be one of a shrinking circle of people passing the hot potato endlessly, each one desperately hoping the music doesn’t stop with them.