Theresa May thinks Facebook will police itself Some hope

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t has taken an age, but at last politicians seem to be waking up to the societal problems posed by the dominance of certain tech firms – notably Facebook, Twitter and Google – and in particular the way they are allowing their users to pollute the public sphere with extremist rhetoric, hate speech, trolling and multipurpose abusiveness.

The latest occupant of the “techlash” bandwagon is Theresa May, who at the time of writing was still the UK’s prime minister. In her speech last Tuesday in Manchester celebrating the centenary of women’s suffrage, Mrs May fretted that “our public debate today is coarsening” and that “it is becoming harder to disagree, without also demeaning opposing viewpoints in the process”.

This was, she said, a threat to democracy. The ideal “of a truly plural and open public debate in which everyone can take part is in danger. A tone of bitterness and aggression has entered into our public debate. Participants in local and national public life – from candidates and elected representatives to campaigners, journalists and commentators – have to contend with regular and sustained abuse.”

Since much of that abuse is directed at women who dare to put their heads above the parapet on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, she heartily endorsed the recommendations from the committee on standards in public life of actions that social media companies can take to address this problem. “The companies,” she continued, “must now step up and set out how they will respond positively to those recommendations. So far, their response has been encouraging and I hope they will continue in that spirit.

This is typical Mayspeak: it mimes determination but is devoid of substance. It’s like hoping that the alcohol industry will help to stamp out binge drinking or that food manufacturers will desist from encouraging childhood obesity. Neither industry will comply for the simple reason that their continued prosperity depends on people drinking more alcohol and consuming more sugar and fat.

Exactly the same goes for the social media companies: their prosperity depends on expanding “user engagement”, which means encouraging their users to like, share and post whatever it is that turns them on.

And if the fact that some of what turns them on turns out to be vile becomes a PR problem, then it should be dealt with as such – much as the alcohol industry deals with binge drinking – because anything more serious would present an existential threat to the companies’ business models.

So Mrs May’s hopes for co-operation from Facebook, Twitter, et al are just that – pious hopes. If she had a parliamentary majority and political backbone, she could transform those hopes into legal requirements. But she won’t and, instead, will just plead with the companies to behave more responsibly. On the continent, some of her counterparts have found the necessary resolve. The Germans now have a Network Enforcement Act, which requires social media firms to remove hate speech quickly or face fines of up to £44m. And some years ago the European court of justice bestowed on European citizens the “right to be forgotten”, which enables them to have links to objectionable web content concerning them removed from search results in European countries.

At first sight, these measures look positive: elected governments and their institutions finally getting their acts together, using legal measures to stop social-media companies polluting the public sphere. But look a little deeper and you find the thin end of what looks like a disturbing wedge. What’s happening is that public authority is being ceded to private corporations. Or, as the American legal scholar Frank Pasquale put it in a remarkable lecture: territorial sovereignty (the power held by democratic institutions such as courts or parliaments) is being ceded to functional sovereigns (the companies that dominate digital technology).

How come? Well, the new German law effectively outsources to social media companies decisions about what shall – and shall not – be published. And the “right to be forgotten” is administered not by a publicly legal institution but by the corporation whose search engine has a monopoly in Europe. It’s to Google that one makes a petition to have objectionable content delisted from search results and it’s Google that weighs the damage to the person making the request against any public interest in the information being available – and makes the decision accordingly.

Note the direction of travel here: all this involves the outsourcing to private corporations of public-interest and free-speech decisions that we would normally expect to be made by democratically accountable institutions. This embodies the inferiority complex that has infected democratic states vis-a-vis the tech giants. And the result is the kind of servile cringe implicit in Theresa May’s fond hopes that Facebook will eventually play ball. Dream on, prime minister, dream on.

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