Thank you to Truth Reporter for submitting this article.
On a day when the news headlines were either concerned with the coronavirus or the pros and cons of the new range of Samsung phones, it was announced – albeit in muted tones, that Ofcom was to be granted new powers to regulate social media to police harmful or illegal content on platforms such as Facebook, Youtube and Instagram.
Superficially there are no downsides to such action but governments have a very poor record when they use interventionist policy to ‘protect’ the people. All too frequently we find the new powers abused to limit free speech or to conceal mistakes and hide the powerful from accountability.
Social media platforms can now be fined considerable sums if they are found to be carrying content which is somehow construed ‘harmful’. We know already that social media removes content or content producers at will in response to spurious reports from pressure groups. The new Ofcom powers will only further hypersensitise the social media companies to these groups and give those who wish to shut down debate powerful ammunition to do so.
Worse still is the fact that the government is floating these powers away on Ofcom’s raft. Quangos like Ofcom have a poor record when it comes to transparency and accountability and further layers of bureaucracy are not what we need at a time when it is patently obvious that cynical actors are already abusing existing protections to leverage their agendas.
Boris Johnson likes to claim that he is a champion of efficiency and transparency, his advisor Dominic Cummings wants to fundamentally reform the civil service but in reality the direction of travel seems increasingly toward regulation by people that as an electorate we cannot remove via the democratic process. Tony Blair left a huge legacy of apparatchiks and placemen in high ranks in a variety of these Quangos, embedding his thinking into the very fabric of the country’s growing network of regulatory bodies.
If you view developments through this lens then the dissonance between the stated objectives of the government and the observed actions become clear. It is no longer sufficient to win an election. Government has given away too many of its operations to other bodies and when it wishes to made a radical change of direction it finds that they are no longer the only hand on the rudder, they must first wrestle the controls from people who have been placed within the system to keep things pointing in the direction their masters dictate. Let me very clear here – those masters are not the public.
The worrying aspect of the clamour for more regulation of social media platforms is the paucity of the analysis on the precise mechanisms by which this would work. None of the coverage in the media today had even a paragraph examining the methodologies required. The government again has a poor record of actually understanding how the technology works which makes any legislation they enact a very blunt tool indeed.
Here is a simple example showing how technology can always be one step ahead of legislation.
The new proposals mean that social media platforms must be accountable for the content on their systems but the internet is global and social media platforms come and go – look at Yahoo and Myspace – internet giants who are now largely gone. Imagine a situation where facebook, instagram and the other ‘main’ platforms are so weighed down by self policing that another platform that understands that all they need to do gain competitive advantage is avoid UK regulation simply operates their platform from another jurisdiction. They do not need to worry about all the restrictions as they have no UK physical footprint so they can increase their profitability over competitors by doing and allowing content the UK would otherwise restrict. If you want an example how new social media platforms grow from nothing into huge internet sensations then just look at TikTok – I hadn’t heard of it until about 8 weeks ago, now it seems that all the young people want to be on it.
What does the UK do then? Do they block such upstarts? This would then be little different from the Chinese model of censorship and blocking which itself is relatively easy to circumvent using VPN technology or TOR. Regulating the internet is like trying to grip a wet bar of soap and the hubris of governments who think they can achieve this aim would be funny if the downsides were not so dangerous.
The mainstream and broadcast media do not like the internet at all. They despise its freedoms and its ability to move quickly to fill emerging markets or create new ones where they previously did not exist. We will be told 1001 scary stories about the importance of protecting children and the vulnerable as reasons that we must accept a blanket of restrictive measures to limit what we can see and do online. Meanwhile the real malicious actors are two steps ahead of the legislators and those who know how to exploit the internet will act with impunity.
The simple answer is that only you can protect yourself from the potential harm of the internet, if you have children then you need to be highly interventionist. Online fads spread as the now overused term states – virally. The government is not going to shield you from anything, be cautious online, guard your privacy and research the risks.
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