So here we are, it’s another day, another headline about a government going after a global tech company.
To recap, the UK Parliament Select Committee for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport recently published the findings from its inquiry into Disinformation and Fake news.
A summary of the DCMS Select Committee’s recommendations is as follows: -
- A compulsory code of ethics for tech companies overseen by an independent regulator;
- Regulation which can be funded by levy on tech companies;
- Revision of electoral communication laws which are no longer fit for purpose and rules on foreign actors in domestic elections;
- Social media platforms required to remove harmful content including proven sources of disinformation.
These are all noteworthy and represent a move in the right direction. Self-regulation was never the answer. It surrenders too much power to corporate entities and leaves an open platform in which that power can be monetized and abused. Given the revelations of the months leading up to the EU referendum in the United Kingdom and the US Presidential elections in 2016, tech companies ought to be held accountable for any infractions. Their refusal to admit their role as a new hybrid entity (part media, part platform) which requires some degree of regulatory oversight has led us to this point.
But notably the culture of deregulation, in pursuit of economic gain, has left a deep hangover and it appears the pendulum is swinging in the other direction. Equal responsibility must be placed on our institutions which were in fact designed to address 20th century challenges and have failed to keep abreast of the digital age. And those entrusted to ensure regular upgrades to our institutional apparatus have not been as vigilant or responsive.
If we look at the big picture, this narrative – the tech company cast as the big bad wolf and some entity (benevolent hero) is going to extract its Shakespearian pound of flesh – is old and out-of-date. It has expired because the challenges are too big for one actor/ institution or government to address.
It is apparent in the final report that the challenge of protecting democracies from fake news or disinformation is not a domestic one. Viral posts and hate speech do not respect borders. The International Grand Committee itself was made up of parliamentarians from Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, France, Ireland, Latvia and Singapore.
So, what has been the international response/action to fake news and disinformation?
So far, individual countries have taken the initiative to draft or introduce legislation to respond to pervasive fake news and disinformation. Israel introduced the “Facebook bill”; Germany has the Network Enforcement Act and the United States has the Honest Ads Act. But many have also had to contend with protecting the freedoms their democracies consider sacrosanct such as privacy and freedom of expression. To resolve this innate conflict, civil society actors, such as Article19 and Open Rights Group, should also participate in implementing the Select Committee's recommendations.
In my opinion, the antagonistic and aggressive tone of the inquiry on all sides erected barriers which were unnecessary and counterproductive. It is critical that we distinguish between the punitive measures to be imposed on tech companies for infractions or alleged crimes committed and what we are going to do to strengthen our institutions and their capacity to address the challenges we face.
There is no disputing that any organization involved in any infractions should be held to account since no entity is above the law. However, we should also note that the existing laws are unable to keep pace with viral content and online microtargeting.
So there is merit in co-designing an architecture comprised of regulations, institutions and oversight capability to rapidly respond to any breaches.
As my colleague, Brhmie Balaram, RSA Senior Researcher mentioned in her previous blog, if we can agree that the end goal is to protect our fragile democracies the only way to do so is through collective action – platforms, policymakers and civil society must collaborate.
For the above recommendations to have credibility and legitimacy amongst all the actors, it is imperative that each entity have a seat at the table in co-creating them.
But this goes further still. What about a more concerted international effort to address fake news and disinformation?
There have been previous international compacts which were under the purview of the tech giants (Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism) or more recently, those limited to a small group of countries e.g. Declaration on the Principles of the Law Governing the Internet.
However, nothing has gained significant traction.
This presents a great opportunity for the UK government to develop a national model for collaboration and co-creation on such a pressing issue.
Perhaps the UK can also take a lead role in collaborating with other countries to form an international compact to address fake news and disinformation while still preserving democratic freedoms and ideals.
To conclude, the above recommendations are a welcome step in the right direction, but our governing institutions also need reforming so that they can be trusted to keep pace with rapid changes in technology. This means that they need to take a more co-operative approach to regulating platforms and the spread of disinformation, working with these entities and civil society actors to achieve common aims, as well as collaborating with other governments to successfully resolve what is ultimately a global challenge.