This week’s press has been thick with bullish noises from the Tories about cracking down on social media. Ministers are expected to decide within weeks whether or not they will introduce a “single regulator for internet companies”.
Jeremy Wright, the Digital Secretary, has already announced that social media companies will face deadlines to delete content, and penned an op-ed announcing an end to the internet’s “era of self-regulation”.
Other suggestions include: social media bosses being “arrested and held personally liable” if harmful content isn’t taken down from their sites; another minister decrying tech giants as “above a law”; the Prime Minister has been urged to back a ‘crackdown’; and both the Health and Education Secretaries have got in on the game too.
And that’s just the Government: Labour are calling for a regulator with the power to “break up monopolies” and levy multi-million pound fines, whilst the Information Commissioner’s Office has called for a halt to Facebook political ads until new rules are agreed.
But does all this sound and fury signify anything? Between the idea and the reality falls the shadow, and there’s a long road from strong talk about the need to rein in the wild web and setting up an effective regulatory regime – especially for a Government whose bandwidth looks set to be consumed by Brexit for the foreseeable future.
For starters, ‘web regulation’ covers several quite distinct areas. Designing up-to-date rules for political campaigning, such as those Cheryl Gillan called for on this site yesterday, is a distinct challenge to combating fake news, which is different again from protecting children and vulnerable people from harmful content on social media.
Whilst it may garner easy headlines, “set up a regulator” can only be the bare bones of a solution to any one of them. Consider all the unintended consequences which have stemmed from the decision to set up the Electoral Commission, and its flailing attempts to uphold even the electoral law we already have. If a new regulator or regulators are to be introduced, its vital that the Government takes a pro-active approach to monitoring their efficacy and remit.
Even the more straightforward-seeming policies have their drawbacks. Take the prospect of steep penalties for social media giants floated above. A similar approach has proven very popular with the public when it was introduced in Germany, but attracted fierce criticism from human rights advocates for turning risk-averse private companies into over-zealous, un-accountable censors.
As we wrote last year, conservatives in particular ought to be mindful of the fact that when it comes to massive media platforms such as Facebook, their power to stop people seeing things is as important as their power to put things in front of us. Britain, where existing law is already sending the police after bloggers and tweeters, ought to take seriously the risk of doing inadvertent damage to free speech – anonymous accounts, for example, may be are used by whistleblowers as well as trolls.
If they really mean to take these issues on – and they are worth taking on – ministers face a balancing act. They need to create policies tailored to meet the various different and specific challenges which might be caught up under the heading ‘web regulation’, whilst at the same time maintaining a big-picture view of how new laws or enforcers in one area might have unintended consequences for the others.
This might be possible, but it can’t be rushed, and given the scale and complexity of doing it properly it seems unlikely that such legislation is imminent.