Theresa May’s plans to fine big technology companies if they fail to expunge extremist material online should be given careful consideration, not denigrated and dismissed out of hand.
A leading Queens Counsel and member of the government’s own counter-terrorism watchdog clearly believes any attempt to fine social media companies is counter-productive and even dangerous. “We do not live in China,” says Max Hill QC, “where the internet simply goes dark for millions when government so decides.”
He wonders whether government dealings with the technology giants should be more conciliatory, bringing them onside in the fight against extremism. This sounds reasonable on the face of it, but there are several major flaws in this thinking.
Firstly, the argument regarding China is an attempt to cast Mrs. May’s proposal as an exercise in censorship. This is, of course, one of those hot-button words which invariably sets many a pulse racing, as people imagine governments attempting to block their basic civic liberties.
In fact, censorship exists at almost every level of societal life and it is vital for preserving individual and social liberties.
All laws protecting our rights arguably represent a form of censorship. They proscribe individual behaviour for the common good, in ways that are agreed to or at least tolerated by the wider society.
This is not, of course, the same type of censorship that applies when the Chinese government takes down the internet for political purposes. However, it is still censorship and implying that all government regulation of media companies would represent a negative form of censorship is disingenuous.
The second flaw in arguments against government regulation, is that these arguments draw a false distinction between social media and “old” media and print industries.
Society recognises that owners of newspapers and media outlets wield great influence. They have the means to help shape or at least “nudge” public opinion. Society insists that great opportunity must be accompanied by high levels of accountability. The outcome of the phone-hacking scandal highlighted this fact.
If a newspaper or media outlet oversteps the bounds of propriety, or threatens the public good, we are quick to apply a penalty. In some cases, it will be a fine, in others criminal proceedings might be in order.
Online social media platforms are more than blank slates through which individuals can express themselves. They are the new broadcasters and publishers of our time. When they make huge amounts of money trading on the data we publish, they cannot claim to be innocent bystanders in the process of information dissemination. They clearly have a stake in the process.
They must therefore also accept the social responsibility attendant upon them as the post-modern equivalent of TV, radio or newspaper proprietors.
Would it be easy to quantify their influence, in a court of law for example? Perhaps not, but they cannot act as if the internet is still an emerging “wild west” culture, as it was with the original web. Not when they are quick to lobby governments for new rules protecting their part of the corporate culture that forms the backbone of the new web.
Another argument is often implied, if not overtly stated, when it comes to holding these companies to account. It says that regulating the global companies is almost impossible, as they operate in so many nations, each of which will have different laws regarding press and media.
Attempting to regulate them, says this argument, will be futile and a waste of government (that is, public) resources.
Whilst it is true that social media companies operate in a global marketplace, they are still registered and head-quartered in a particular region.
These companies are not rootless organisations existing only in some ephemeral space called the Cloud. They are legal entities and, like any other companies, subject to legal limitations.
Of course, most companies can afford nothing like the lobbying power of a big-tech organisation. However, as battles between governments and tobacco companies proved, lobbying and marketing power don’t always win the day when the public’s well-being is at stake.
We can’t take the analogy too far here, but holding tobacco companies to account for their impact on public health was a worthy use of public money. Does reigning in the power of big-tobacco in areas such as marketing and lobbying constitute censorship? Perhaps - but it is the right kind of censorship, as the UK’s most recent health figures relating to smoking have suggested.
Governments, of the liberal democratic persuasion, will need to work together to bring pressure on technology companies to do more to reduce the incidence of extremist material. It only takes one YouTube video to help produce a Manchester bomber.
Yes, they will need the help of technology experts if they are to understand how the new media technologies actually work. But it would be in the best interests of socially-minded tech companies to assist governments with this. They will, in the end, prove themselves to be great global citizens. They will also help to preserve a safe space in which we can all communicate and collaborate.
They would also demonstrate that they are, as they often claim, long-sighted and truly strategic entrepreneurs.
Will regulation, with fines or other penalties stamp out the problem altogether? Almost certainly not. Is the best option for tackling the immediate problem? No and it would not be necessary if companies practised adequate self-regulation. But the situation is pressing. Penalties might at least significantly undermine the ability of repeat offenders to keep publishing their murderous content.
Would such measures drive extremists onto the encrypted “Dark Web”, where you can buy weapons, drugs and even people, out of view of the public - and the police ? Possibly, but those who want a presence on the web’s dirty underbelly are likely there already. (And, for proponents of the anti-censorship line, limiting the Dark Web would also represent a form of censorship.)
It is easy to kick a political leader when he or she is down. Mrs May’s authority is now seriously compromised by the result of an unnecessary snap election. It is a situation of her own making.
This does not mean, however, that she is any less justified in calling for social media companies to accept their rightful civic responsibility. They have enormous influence on what is accessible by vulnerable and often criminal minds.
Social media groups have made it possible for us to do remarkable things. They promote mass collaboration and convergent innovative. They support social enterprise and offer new insights into cross-cultural understanding.
These agents for so much good must not be allowed to become, even to a small degree, universities of the depraved.