Sunday, March 19, 2017

Facebook and Twitter could pay the price for hate speech - by John Naughton

The German government has published a draft law that will impose huge fines (up to €50m) on social networks that fail promptly to remove hate speech, fake news and other undesirable content from their platforms. Social media companies will be required to explain rules and complaint procedures clearly to users and follow up on each complaint. Content that is blatantly illegal must be taken down within 24 hours, while other law-breaking content must be taken down or blocked within seven days.

Behind the proposed measure is a belief that the big internet companies aren’t taking their responsibilities seriously. “Facebook and Twitter missed the chance to improve their takedown practices,” said Heiko Maas, the federal minister for justice and consumer protection. “For companies to take on their responsibility in question of deleting criminal content, we need legal regulations.”

Stand by for howls of outrage from said companies, free speech advocates and political activists, together with conspiracy theories about how this is yet another example of anti-American lobbying by Springer and other European publishers. Less obvious, but equally vigorous, is the sound of lawyers rubbing their hands in gleeful anticipation of lucrative employment for years to come.

This is a significant moment in the evolving struggle between democracy and digital technology – or more precisely, between democracy and the companies whose platforms increasingly determine what people read, see and hear. As readers of this column will know, companies such as Facebook and Google have grown and prospered courtesy of a single clause in an obscure corner of the US legal code that enables them to pretend they are just conduits along which information flows from one point to another, and thus have no responsibility for the content that streams through their servers.

In the early days of the web (the relevant legislation was passed in 1996), that might just have been a reasonable proposition: it was a way of ensuring that the nascent web could grow organically rather than at the pace of the slowest litigant. But with the growth and dominance of the digital giants, it has become unsustainable. A Pew survey in mid-2016, for example, found that a majority of Americans said they get news via social media, and half of the public turned to social media to learn about the 2016 presidential election. This doesn’t mean that people get all of their news from Facebook and Twitter (TV still matters), but it does mean that the owners of big internet platforms have acquired some of the power that has traditionally been ascribed to print moguls and broadcasters. And with that power comes a responsibility that they do not wish to shoulder.

They have sound commercial reasons for shirking it. Accepting responsibility for the content the internet giants carry would be irksome and expensive.. read more: