On September 5 2018, US Senator Mark Warner declared: “the era of the Wild West in social media is coming to an end.” And he was right. After a tumultuous year, rife with data breaches and chronic misinformation, tech giants can no longer boast free reign, able to escape scrutiny beneath the safety blanket of public disregard. 2018 has firmly put an end to an age of ignorance, and we now face the challenge of cleaning up our industry – whilst still maintaining its integrity.
As a result of trust lost, we’ve seen Big Tech seek to restore platform and public health by increasing Time Well Spent for real users and eliminating fake ones, yet the age of transparency extends beyond the user. Global governing bodies have been paying attention to blunder after blunder – and social media regulation seems imminent. But what started as poking friends has evolved into a mass communication tool, covering everything from commerce to news to entertainment and politics. How on earth do you begin to regulate something of that scale?
Government lawmakers are ready to help tech companies win the war against misinformation, harmful content and foreign interference. If only they knew how.
In the UK, Ofcom has revealed plans to police social networks in the same way they do for broadcasting and telecommunications, to “prevent online harm.” In Germany, a law now exists to ensure platforms remove “illegal” hate speech within 24 hours, while the head of the country’s antitrust watchdog, Andreas Mundt, has said he is very optimistic that his office will “take action” against Facebook in 2019.
And in the US, the world watched representatives from Facebook, Google and Twitter summoned to Capitol Hill, forced to testify before Senators who were blatantly naive to the models they seek to govern. Congress has since threatened to introduce laws facilitating greater information-sharing among public and private stakeholders, and hold each company accountable for the content on their platforms.
But how much can platforms be held accountable for?
Key areas marked for regulation are news, usage, competition and data protection. The latter is already on the agenda, as the EU welcomed GDPR in May 2018. However as we move into 2019, there is sure to be a greater focus on transparency around how personal data is used, along with stricter sanctions for those who fail to comply.
We’ve also begun to see the beginning of consumer-focused regulation. Moderators are working to block content for vulnerable audiences while Instagram’s new anti-bullying tools will hinder the spreading of online abuse, and platform-native usage insights and time limits ensure users aren’t overexposing themselves to social media.
But it is news publishers’ and business organisations’ use of social networking sites which proves harder to control. Platforms are enablers of media publishing – they are not publishers or creators themselves. Regulating news may require platforms to sign up to the IPSO Editors Code, for example. This could see platforms held responsible for defamation or breaches of copyright or privacy, while organisations who have acted illegally online or propagated fake news would also be blacklisted.
Despite concerns that such a sanction could endanger free speech, a survey by Gallup revealed 79% of Americans believe tech companies should be regulated. But the same rules which apply to traditional media and advertising can’t simply be copied and pasted to the social media landscape. Largely because we aren’t talking about a US-only broadcaster or a UK national publication – social media transcends borders.
A worthwhile cause? Social media regulation could see 3 problems caused for every 1 fixed
68% of the global population with internet access own a Facebook account, making its user base greater than the individual populations of China, India, Europe and North America. For social media to maintain its worldwide inclusion, its regulation would have to transcend borders, too. But can global governments agree on unified policy when they each have agendas of their own?
We know what tight control over social media looks like elsewhere. It’s hardly the most liberal-minded governments who already act to control the digital world. Authoritarian regimes such as China heavily limit what their citizens can see and do online, yet solutions like the ‘great firewall of China’ rarely prevent harm – all they do successfully is censor the exchange of ideas.
As we’ve learned from past attempts to regulate free press, when people suggest that expression be regulated, they often mean other people’s expressions. And despite its flaws, social media has become a voice for those whose opinions are less likely to be represented in mainstream media. So while there is no right or wrong answer to the orientation of information, it’s important that those in charge of moderating content are seen as independent of political agenda.
There are also concerns that regulation could close the social media market to new entrants by increasing the cost of business. Those threatened by Facebook and Google’s ad power have been among the boldest in their calls for regulation; Germany’s complaint against Facebook cited allegations of unfair competition with rivals. But legal fees brought on by regulation could further decrease opportunity, as the privilege of spreading information would be reserved for those who could afford it.
Om Malik, partner at Silicon Valley venture capital firm, True Ventures, explains: “Regulation will be shaped by people who can spend the most on lobbyists – Amazon, Google and Facebook, for example. It will prevent small competitors from amassing data, developing algorithms or ever gaining an advantage over these three companies in advertising and commerce.”
The solution to social media regulation is yet to be found. When it is, we will all have a part to play
Social Chain Group CEO, Steve Bartlett, warns those who don’t understand it not to meddle with social media out of fear, lest they end up censoring it entirely:
“The law, generally speaking, should stay out of it. If you’re uninformed you can’t just implement laws in an industry; you don’t know if what you’re doing will help or hurt. The people who understand these things best, unfortunately, work in the industry. And they are making changes – slowly, but that’s because they’re trying to make changes without destroying their entire business model.”
If Steve is right, then the question is not how lawmakers can fix what they don’t understand, it’s whether or not they should. Many believe Facebook, Google and Twitter can’t be trusted to act in the public interest because they will always prioritise business interests. But as the three companies are a crucial element to millions of business strategies worldwide, we all share their interest to keep social media platforms healthy and functional.
As such, the case for self-regulation is growing stronger by the day. This could resemble systems seen in traditional publishers such as The Guardian, to avoid external interference and bias. Alternatively, we could see the emergence of a new, specialised regulator, made up of a digital board of directors. Self-regulation even has some government support. US Rep. Billy Long told Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg: “You’re the one to fix this. We’re not. You need to go home and right your ship.”
Passing laws in this environment will be a mammoth task for whoever leads the charge. Effective change will likely take years – and it should. But as digital scandals continue to unfold, lawmakers are panicking into prioritising fast action over effective action. And if anger continues to outpace thinking, regulation is sure to do more harm than good.
What has become painfully apparent is the need for new blood in government. Much of what has happened in the last year could and should have been predicted and, though governments are happy to hold Silicon Valley accountable, mistakes made on both sides have proven that no one can effectively govern social media alone. Not governments, regulators nor the companies themselves, have found the right solution yet. But once they do, the prize for getting it right will be control of information. With this in mind, it is crucial that those inside the industry are poised to educate and inform those who will govern our always-online world – whether they should or not.
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