It was almost inevitable that the wilderness of the internet would end up being tamed – at least to some extent. In the UK, one of the latest attempts to do so comes in the form of a proposal to introduce “online safety laws”, which would essentially hold social media companies accountable for any illegal content posted on their sites. Unsurprisingly, this proposal has been met with mixed reactions.
The issue of illegal content
Probably the least contentious part of this proposal has been to make social media companies responsible for the prompt removal of content which is already clearly defined as illegal under UK law, such as terrorist content.
While this may seem reasonable in principle, the problem, as is generally the case, is finding an appropriate way to put these measures into practice.
Statistics vary according to the social media company, but in simple terms, any major platform will see huge amounts of content added to it every day. This means that even the deep pockets of social media companies would soon be emptied if they tried to use human moderation for all of it. The only practical solution would be automated moderation, presumably backed up by humans as a “second-line”.
The likely problem here would be that social media companies would be driven by the need to avoid penalties and hence work on a “remove first and ask questions later” basis. This could potentially result in the false-flagging of legitimate content, which would need to be reinstated after human intervention, by which point it might be out of date. It would also potentially be at risk of false-flagging again since the social media companies might be unwilling to “protect” content initially cleared for fear it could be changed.
The issue of “questionable” content
In addition to covering content which has already been defined as illegal, the proposal also includes trolling, cyber-bullying and, possibly most controversially of all, fake news. Specifically, the government intends to mandate that the social media networks employ fact-checkers and promote “legitimate” news sources.
As has been pointed out, however, one person’s fact can be massively disputed by someone else. This can easily be demonstrated by watching any live political debate where politicians will openly question facts stated by their opponents and present an alternative (and usually very different) viewpoint.
The issue of “legitimate” news sources is also a very subjective one, since mainstream media not only has its own biases but also varies widely in the quality of its fact-checking. For example, when the media in the USA reported that a group of schoolchildren had attacked a native American war veteran and it was smaller, internet-based sources, who called this into question. It later transpired that the story was false.
In addition to these concerns, there have also been questions raised about the extent, if any, to which the government has the legitimate right to curtail freedom of expression, particularly in areas which are, at most, legal grey areas.
It will be interesting to see how the government responds to these criticisms of its proposal. However, it seems almost guaranteed that it will become law in some form.
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