Last month, with the passage of the Copyright Directive, I wrote here that Europe was splitting the internet into three. On Sunday, that process took another big step forward. Colin Lecher explains in The Verge:
In a detailed proposal released today, the United Kingdom laid out a plan for more closely regulating the tech industry, which is the latest crackdown on Big Tech in Europe.
The white paper, produced by the UK’s secretary of state for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and the secretary of state for the Home Department, says more decisive action is needed, noting the spread of terrorist content and other growing problems online. “There is currently a range of regulatory and voluntary initiatives aimed at addressing these problems,” the authors write in a summary, “but these have not gone far or fast enough, or been consistent enough between different companies, to keep UK users safe online.”
But unlike in the United States, where seemingly all talk of new restrictions on tech companies fizzles into nothingness, Commonwealth countries appear to be quite serious about regulation. Australia has proposed fines and even jail time for executives at companies that fail to remove violent content promptly, as I covered here last week. New Zealand’s privacy commissioner has (ironically?) asked Facebook to hand over the names of everyone who shared video of the Christchurch massacre. (He also called the company “morally bankrupt pathological liars who enable genocide,” for good measure.)
And now Canada is considering new regulations as well, BuzzFeed and the Toronto Starreported:
Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould told the Star and BuzzFeed News that “all options are on the table” when it comes to applying domestic rules to international social media giants like Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Twitter.
“We recognize that self-regulation is not yielding the results that societies are expecting these companies to deliver,” Gould said in an interview Monday.
Of all the saber rattling to date, the UK white paper contains perhaps the most sweeping set of potential regulations to date. Lawmakers intend to establish a new regulatory agency and “code of practice” to guide internet companies on what is required of them; empower that agency to fine companies (and executives) that fail to meet its standards; and require internet service providers to block access to sites that fail do not adhere to its “code of practice.”
The plans cover a range of issues that are clearly defined in law such as spreading terrorist content, child sex abuse, so-called revenge pornography, hate crimes, harassment and the sale of illegal goods.
But it also covers harmful behaviour that has a less clear legal definition such as cyber-bullying, trolling and the spread of fake news and disinformation.
An internet that has been stripped of terrorist content, child exploitation, and revenge porn would certainly be welcome. And yet given what we know about the difficulties of content moderation at scale, it’s difficult to understand how the regulations now in development will achieve their aims without significantly undermining political speech. One person’s “trolling,” after all, is another person’s good-faith discussion — and God help the regulator tasked with drawing a line between them.
What’s more, tough new moderation requirements may prove impossible for all but the largest platforms to meet, further entrenching their power and making it more difficult for startups to challenge them. If you believe that Commonwealth countries have been more willing to regulate tech platforms in part because they resent the fact that America owns vast swathes of the internet — and I do — it’s worth considering that a primary effect of these new rules could be to dramatically increase American companies’ power.
Years of inaction have justifiably led critics to complain that regulators around the world have been asleep at the switch. But if it’s true that they have historically moved too slowly, it’s also possible that in the current moment they are moving too fast. A white paper that announces its intention to ban “trolling” and “disinformation” but makes little attempt to define either gives me the shivers. (So does a strong endorsement by Theresa May.)
Some recent regulations strike me as positive on the whole — the General Data Protection Regulation seems to have galvanized a healthy amount of pro-privacy lawmaking around the world. But before we redesign the entire internet around the concept of “safety,” it’s worth having a long conversation about what we are giving up to get there.
Goldy’s posts represented a clear case of a bad actor getting “freedom of reach” on Facebook, and I’m glad she’s gone now:
Facebook announced Monday that it was banning prominent Canadian white nationalist Faith Goldy from its platform, a week after the company told HuffPost that her racist videos didn’t violate its new rules barring white nationalist content.
David Uberti reports that the New Jersey attorney general sent a letter to Facebook inquiring about an anti-Semitic page:
Anti-Semitic comments, such as arguments for eradicating Jews “like Hitler did,” have flooded a New Jersey Facebook page. And the state’s attorney general wants Facebook to step up and start monitoring them.
A letter sent by the office’s Division on Civil Rights highlighted anti-Semitic comments left on a Lakewood, New Jersey, group’s page that officials say illustrates the “rising tide of hate” around the state and country. The anonymous group, called Rise Up Ocean County, allegedly promotes negative stereotypes of Orthodox Jews to discourage new residents and development. The group’s profile photo — which includes a cross, a Star of David, and the Islamic star and crescent — brands the page as “united against anti-gentilism,” or what its members consider prejudice against non-Jews.
Smriti Kak Ramachandran profiles the Facebook teams working to protect the platform against interference in the upcoming Indian election. (There’s a Facebook blog post about it as well.)
This operations centre workforce – 40 teams of 30,000 people across the globe – that includes experts from across sectors such as cyber security and engineering has been put in place after the social media giant faced heat from governments and privacy watchdogs in the aftermath of the Cambridge Analytica controversy, which exposed privacy lapses on the platform.
Typically, the forensic exercise – of earmarking a post or an account, handing it over to the operations teams that run 24X7, for investigation to assess if it qualifies for a take-down – is completed in hours.
Tried to come up with a more meaningful accompaniment to this Drew FitzGerald story than “UMMMM” but couldn’t quite get there:
The company is in talks to develop an underwater data cable that would encircle the continent, according to people familiar with the plans, an effort aimed at driving down its bandwidth costs and making it easier for the social media giant to sign up more users.
The three-stage project, named Simba after the lead character in “The Lion King,” could link up with beachheads in several countries on the continent’s eastern, western and Mediterranean coasts, though the exact route and number of landings is in flux, the people said.
Israel votes tomorrow, but the only fact-checking group working with Facebook got started just days Megha Rajagopalan reports.
The Whistle, the only internationally accredited fact-checking group in Israel, is checking content that’s been flagged as possibly containing misinformation by either Facebook or users. […]
The Whistle, which was integrated into the financial newspaper Globes earlier this year, consists of just five staffers and a handful of student volunteers.
Meanwhile, Twitter has suspended at least 600 accounts “affiliated with the Church of Almighty God (CAG), a Christian sect that’s banned in China and which believes that Jesus Christ has been reincarnated as a Chinese woman currently living in Queens, New York.”
Dhruv Mehrotra and Kashmir Hill report that while Airbnb has come out against the use of its platform by white nationalists, organized hate groups still use it:
A Gizmodo investigation found that 87 Airbnb listings in the immediate area around the Montgomery Bell Inn and Conference Center had been booked for the weekend of the hate group’s conference. Though it was impossible to know how many of those reservations were made by white nationalists attending AmRen, the possibility that Airbnb hosts were unknowingly inviting extremists in their homes is alarming.
An NBC poll found widespread dissatisfaction with social media. Mark Murray:
The American public holds negative views of social-media giants like Facebook and Twitter, with sizable majorities saying these sites do more to divide the country than unite it and spread falsehoods rather than news, according to results from the latest national NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.
What’s more, six in 10 Americans say they don’t trust Facebook at all to protect their personal information, the poll finds.
Facebook groups are popular among criminals, Adi Robertson reports:
Forgers, identity thieves, spammers, and scammers have been using Facebook to hawk their services, even after a crackdown last year, according to a new report. Cisco cybersecurity research division Talos says it found dozens of Facebook groups that were “shady (at best) and illegal (at worst)”, with names like “Facebook hack (Phishing)” and “Spammer & Hacker Professional.” The groups have been shut down, but Talos is calling on Facebook to police shady groups more proactively, complaining that it’s “apparently relied on these communities to police themselves.”
Taylor Lorenz profiles college students who are getting to know each other via dedicated accounts created for their classes:
These accounts have names such as @penn2023_and @AUclassof2023, and they typically feature user-submitted photos and paragraph-long biographies of incoming students, often including their intended major, whether they’re looking for a roommate, and their personal Instagram handle. “Hey!” the caption on one recent class page reads. “I am from Overland Park, Kansas and plan to major in environmental and natural resources. I love anything outdoors (hiking, kayaking, hammocking) and i’m always down to get food!!! I am definitely interested in rushing! I would love to talk to you guys, (i need a roommate!!) so please DM me about anything!:)”
Blake Montgomery reports that the hot new thing on Instagram is blood and guts from crime scenes:
“People love to see the aftermath,” said Neal Smither, 52, proprietor of Crime Scene Cleaners, Inc, based in Richmond, California, and its Instagram page @crimescenecleanersinc. “They’re gore freaks… They have a certain curiosity we just seem to fit.”
Smither’s page has grown to 378,000 followers since 2014 on the viral success of pictures of bloody floors, the residue of gunshots, and maggots. He said he started it because “what I do is really fucking interesting. Death is the last mystery. It’s unsolvable. There’s a human need to explain death,” though he doesn’t consider himself a priest or a therapist, just a janitor.
Thomas Fuller spends time with a man who scavenges for hidden valuables in the trash of wealthy San Franciscans, including Mark Zuckerberg.
Tim Peterson talks to ad buyers who are impressed with Snap’s announcements from last week.
Ingrid Lunden reports that Pinterest plans to make its initial public offering at a price beneath its last valuation — an indication of the tough ad market and Pinterest’s slowness in developing revenue products.
Yunan Zhang has a nice primer on the rapid growth of TikTok parent ByteDance:
ByteDance, the Chinese company behind TikTok, the viral short video app that has taken the world’s teenagers by storm, has gone on a massive hiring spree in the past year. Its headcount has roughly doubled to 40,000—more than Facebook, which had 35,600 at Dec. 31—as it has diversified beyond its early success, newsfeed app Toutiao. ByteDance now operates more than 20 apps, including Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, fast-growing social network Helo in India as well as a business messaging app, and apps for online learning, jokes, literature and selfies.
Shouldn’t there be a mobile version of American Idol that lands with similar cultural impact? ByteDance is trying one, Shannon Liao reports:
TikTok wants to put together the next Asian boy band or girl group. The short-video app announced today that it’s starting the search for talented young dancers and singers in a new program called TikTok Spotlight. TikTok users in Japan and Korea can compete for a chance to win a record deal by uploading original music videos.
TikTok is creating a new channel on its app for artists to upload their songs, which will then be featured on a playlist for the public to listen to. TikTok will measure the number of song plays to gauge each song’s popularity. Audience preferences play a major role, as artists can get a leg up if their songs get a lot of play time on TikTok. The Spotlight program is similar to one that already exists in China, launched by TikTok’s parent company ByteDance.
A “finally” would seem warranted here.
Sarah Jeong points out that Mark Zuckerberg’s calls for the regulation of harmful content will be hamstrung, in America, by the First Amendment — but not in Europe:
So, while the American government has its hands tied behind its back by the Constitution, the French, the Germans and the Irish will set their own bar for online speech. In the future, American speech — at least online — may be governed by Europe.
Annalee Newitz traded Facebook for D&D:
What drove me away from Facebook wasn’t just the fake friending. It was that fake friendship could be weaponized, used by a hostile government or group to manipulate us. When we fantasize together, in person, we always know that the bot army isn’t real. We know that an insult can hurt. But online, we wear masks over masks. I still love the internet, but I’d rather have a real friendship with a half-elf bard than a thousand faceless followers.