Sceptics consider self-regulation an oxymoron. Some governments no longer want to give tech groups the benefit of the doubt. On Monday, the UK government trumpeted sweeping plans to enforce the removal of harmful content from the internet. Across much of the world, lawmakers want tech giants to take responsibility for the content that underpins profits.
Politically sensitive and vaguely defined, the UK proposals will be hard to police. But the thrust is justified. Public tolerance is waning for excuses over vile online images and opinions. A 14-year-old accessed self-harm images before killing herself, sparking outrage in the UK. A gunman who live-streamed his massacre of New Zealand Muslims on Facebook had the same effect internationally.
Making platforms such as Facebook and Google take responsibility for content challenges their business model. Until now, the boot was on the other foot, thanks to permissive US laws. These provided an implicit subsidy, according to law professor Anupam Chander. Free speech was Silicon Valley’s killer app, he says. The EU ecommerce directive of 2000 provided weaker protections.
Nothing as radical as reversing these rules is planned. The proposed UK law talks about “reasonable and proportionate action”. If internet companies were treated like regular publishers, a huge amount of useful content would probably be removed.
Even so, hosing out the grubbiest corners of the online Augean stables will be labour intensive. Facebook has hired some 15,000 moderators. The extra costs are one reason the social media giant expects future operating margins to be in the mid-30 per cent range, compared with last year’s 45 per cent. When this, and a slew of other bad news, emerged last July the share price fell nearly a fifth to $176, about the same price where it is trading now.
New regulations may entrench the position of the leading players. That is the fear of start-ups. Smaller ad tech firms claim to have felt the burden of last year’s EU’s General Data Protection Regulation the most. The same could apply to the increased costs and legal threats associated with stricter content restrictions. Tougher rules will widen the moat protecting big tech companies from upstarts, even as it increases their costs. Bosses of struggling challenger banks will roll their eyes and mutter “welcome to my world”.
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