Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

How to police social media companies

Technology giants such as Facebook should be dealt with a much firmer hand by government, writes Sam Bright

Social media is often called the ‘wild west’: a vast wasteland with few laws or regulations, home to bandits and outlaws. As Carl Miller points out in his new book, more crime now happens online than offline, yet politicians are only starting to contemplate the idea of policing the internet.

Many online crimes are either facilitated, or directly perpetrated, by social media companies. Facebook has been publicly chastised in recent months for violating data protection laws, for failing to shut down hate speech and extremist propaganda, and for enabling election interference.

In this context, a public trial of Facebook is warranted. However, it is worrying that the inquisition has dragged on for months in both Britain and the United States, without any meaningful proposals for how to fix Facebook. So far, we seem to be more concerned with publicly shaming social media companies than regulating them.

The first step towards action would involve learning from our neighbours in Europe, and Germany in particular. Indeed, at the beginning of this year Germany began to enforce a pioneering new law – allowing fines of up to £44m to be levied against social media sites if they fail to remove hate speech within 24 hours. As a result, Facebook has hired more staff in the country, and has removed hundreds of posts thanks to complaints under the law.

This law is not free of flaws; there have been teething problems. As with much tech regulation, the wording of the legislation is vague. Social media companies have consequently adopted a ‘delete in doubt’ approach to potentially illegal posts – worrying free speech advocates. However, many of these problems stem from Germany’s pre-existing hate speech laws, which are among the toughest in the world. Similar treatment of social media companies could easily be applied in Britain without upsetting the free speech brigade.

Likewise, the British government could introduce comparable legislation to tackle election interference. Multi million pound fines could be slapped on Facebook if it failed to remove foreign-funded disinformation during an election campaign.

Crafting this legislation will be a delicate exercise. On the one hand, big tech companies need to fear the prospect of prosecution if they facilitate illegal behaviour. If the sword of Damocles never falls on Facebook, it will continue to move fast and break things. At the same time, however, we should minimise disruption to consumers – being careful not to clamp down too hard and hamper the beneficial, widely-enjoyed freedoms of the internet.

Effective legislation is in everyone’s interests. If initial regulation fails, then consensus will mount behind a more radical solution: legally treating social media sites as publishers, rather than platforms. Facebook would consequently be liable for every piece of content uploaded by its 2.2 billion users. It is unlikely that social media as we know it would survive after this reform.

To avoid social media Armageddon, we desperately need more experts in parliament who can enact sensible, effective legislation. What is more, we need to embrace international co‑operation – learning from world leading regulators and sharing expertise. The internet does not respect borders. In solving the problems caused by the internet, neither should we.

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Sam Bright is an associate at Progress

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