Culture secretary Oliver Dowden finds himself burdened with an almighty task: regulating the internet. His new ‘Digital Markets Unit’, set to form part of the existing Competitions and Markets Authority, will be the quango in charge of regulating the social media giants. Dowden, like the rest of us, is now trying to discern what can be learned by rummaging through the rubble left behind by the regulatory punch-up between Facebook and the Australian government over a new law forcing online platforms to pay news companies in order to host links to their content.
Google acquiesced immediately, agreeing to government-mandated negotiations with news producers. But Facebook looked ready to put up a fight, following through on its threat to axe all news content from its Australian services. It wasn’t long, though, before Mark Zuckerberg backed down, unblocked the Facebook pages of Australian newspapers and, through gritted teeth, agreed to set up a direct debit to Rupert Murdoch.
The drama down under has been met with a mixed response around the world, but it is broadly consistent with the trend of governments shifting towards more and more harmful and intrusive interference in the technology sector, directly undermining consumers’ interests and lining Murdoch’s pockets. The EU, for one, is keen to get stuck in, disregarding the status quo and unveiling its ambitious plan to keep tabs on the tech giants.
In the US, the situation is rather different. Some conspiracy theorists – the type who continue to believe that Donald Trump is the rightful president of the United States – like to allege that the infamous Section 230, the item of US legislation which effectively regulates social media there, was crafted in cahoots with big tech lobbyists as a favour to bigwigs at Facebook, Google, Twitter, and so on. In reality, Section 230 was passed as part of the Communications Decency Act in 1996, long before any of those companies existed.
Wildly overhyped by many as a grand DC-Silicon Valley conspiracy to shut down the right’s online presence, Section 230 is actually very short and very simple. It is, in fact, just 26 words long: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”
Not only is this a good starting point from which to go about regulating the internet – it is the only workable starting point. If the opposite were true – if platforms were treated as publishers and held liable for the content posted by their users – competition would suffer immensely. Incumbent giants like Facebook would have no problem employing a small army of content moderators to insulate themselves, solidifying their position at the top of the food chain. Meanwhile, smaller companies – the Zuckerbergs of tomorrow – would be unable to keep up, resulting in a grinding halt to innovation and competition.
Another unintended consequence – a clear theme when it comes to undue government meddling in complex matters – would be that vibrant online spaces would quickly become unusable as companies scramble to moderate platforms to within an inch of their lives in order to inoculate themselves against legal peril.
Even with the protections currently in place, it is plain how awful platforms are at moderating content. There are thousands of examples of well-intentioned moderation gone wrong. In January, the Entrepreneurs Network’s Sam Dumitriu found himself plonked in Twitter jail for a tweet containing the words “vaccine” and “microchip” in an attempt to call out a NIMBY’s faulty logic. Abandoning the fundamental Section 230 provision would only make this problem much, much worse by forcing platforms to moderate much more aggressively than they already do.
Centralisation of policy in this area fails consistently whether it comes from governments or the private sector because it is necessarily arbitrary and prone to human error. When Facebook tried to block Australian news outlets, it also accidentally barred the UK-based output of Sky News and the Telegraph, both of which have Australian namesakes. State-sanctioned centralisation of policy, though, is all the more dangerous, especially now that governments seem content to tear up the rulebook and run riot over the norms of the industry almost at random, resulting in interventions which are both ineffectual and harmful.
The Australian intervention in the market is so arbitrary that it could easily have been the other way around: forcing News Corp to pay Facebook for the privilege of having its content shared freely by people all over the world. Perhaps the policy would even make more sense that way round. If someone was offering news outlets a promotional package with a reach comparable to Facebook’s usership, the value of that package on the ad market would be enormous.
Making people pay to have their links shared makes no sense at all. Never in the history of the internet has anybody had to pay to share a link. In fact, the way the internet works is precisely the opposite: individuals and companies regularly fork out large sums of money in order to put their links on more people’s screens.
If you’d said to a newspaper editor twenty years ago that they would soon have free access to virtual networks where worldwide promotion of their content would be powered by organic sharing, they would have leapt for joy. A regulator coming along and decreeing that the provider of that free service now owes money to the newspaper editor is patently ludicrous.
That is not to say, however, that there is no role for a regulator to play. But whether or not the Digital Markets Unit will manage to avoid the minefield of over-regulation remains to be seen. As things stand, there is a very real danger that we might slip down that road. Matt Hancock enthusiastically endorsed the Australian government’s approach, and Oliver Dowden has reportedly been chatting with his counterparts down under about this topic.
The humdrum of discourse over this policy area was already growing, but the Australia-Facebook debacle has ignited it. The stars have aligned such that 2021 is the long-awaited point when the world’s governments finally attempt to reckon with the tech behemoths. From the US to Brussels, from Australia to the Baltics, the amount of attention being paid to this issue is booming.
As UK government policy begins to take shape, expect to see fronts forming between different factions within the Conservative Party on this issue. When it comes to material consequences in Britain, it is not yet clear what all this will mean. The Digital Markets Unit could yet be a hero or a villain.