With the debate about regulating the internet moving from ‘whether’ to ‘how’, Conservatives and others on the political right and centre-right have a clear stake in the outcome.
As has been pointed out by several observers, the sort of data-driven targeting techniques which are now in the spotlight did not suddenly appear in 2016. Back in 2012 the Guardian was gushing over how Barack Obama had harnessed “the power of friendship” to see off that frightful monster, Mitt Romney.
Moreover, the leadership of Facebook and other social media giants live and operate in an environment with strong political currents too. As Nick Timothy points out in his Telegraph column, Mark Zuckerberg “did not deny claims by whistleblowers that Facebook excludes stories popular with conservatives from its lists of trending topics” when testifying before Congress.
Whatever your personal stance on Brexit or Trump, there is a definite sense that the political impact of social media has been thrust into the spotlight because the wrong people – which is to say, ‘populists’ – are winning with it.
This creates a twofold danger. First, that if left to their own devices these companies will self-correct in a way which amounts to suppressing the right. Second, if that doesn’t happen, is that regulation will be drawn up in the spirit of disdain and horror which has characterised the reaction of an important an influential part of the population to the events of 2016.
Even if you’re a Tory who opposed both Brexit and Trump, as many did, that ought to be a hugely concerning development. For all that progressives say nice things about ‘moderates’ like Romney at the moment, look at the way they ran against him when weighing the likelihood that building systemic anti-populist ‘safeguards’ into some of the Western world’s most influential networks won’t rebound on the mainstream right down the line.
Already there has been some important progress. As Iain Martin points out in today’s Times, there is increasing acceptance that these websites are, by dint of moderating their content, publishers rather than mere platforms.
Next, Conservatives should get on the front foot when it comes to designing a fair and proportionate regulatory system, one which not only protects users from the invasive use of personal data but also recognises that sites such as Facebook and Twitter are important public spaces and, given their market share, should have attendant public responsibilities.