By Simon Jenkins
Death threats, bullying, mental torture, privacy invasion, election rigging, fake news, monopoly abuse: as was said of a medieval pope, this is merely to suppress more serious charges. It is hard to recall the social media of 15 years ago and its offer of universal love, democracy and global peace. Britain’s parliament has finally caught up, and today’s Commons report is at least unequivocal. A menace stalks the land, and must be curbed.
Some of the report’s accusations are astonishing. Facebook “purposefully obstructed” the committee. Its boss, Mark Zuckerberg, who “continues to choose profit over data security,” held parliament in contempt. His rambling empire is portrayed as lying, thieving “digital gangsterism”. Yet British electoral law is puny. It is “unfit for purpose,” leaving elections “vulnerable to foreign influence, disinformation and voter manipulation”. Not a week passes without evidence that cybersecurity is inadequate and public services have been left vulnerable to hacking.
So far, so familiar, as are the report’s proposals: the usual comfort blankets of a code of ethics, an independent regulator and “more transparency”. We have sought them for a decade and still not found them. The real question is, why not? What are the pressures, who are the lobbyists, why the inertia? As over Brexit, parliament is fine at demolition, hopeless at construction. The spirit fails at the door marked Something Must Be Done.
The Germans are so ahead of Britain that they have Facebook staff fact-checking frantically, taking down material. America is steeling itself for a monopoly-busting assault on Silicon Valley. The Russians are running wild round the regulators. The Chinese are pioneering web “repatriation”, in effect blocking anything they consider unsuitable. Much of this is not nice for purists, but it must be full of lessons. The running joke among social media pundits is that regulation is so far behind technology – and profit – as to be out of sight.
We still await a legal declaration that social media platforms are publishers not “conduits”. That has to be rubbish. Copyright on the internet is where it was for the printed word in the 19th century, which was nowhere until the law caught up. Attempts to tax and fine social media operators fall foul of the scandalous indulgence of tax shelters. Those who do not pay taxes where they live should not be allowed to live there, period.
An EU initiative to declare Europe a regulated zone was mooted some years ago but abandoned, under American pressure, as an offence against freedom. Time moves on. There is a reason for censoring the public domain, in the prevention of harm and the protection of truth. That is what dictators always plead. But if finding the right balance is hard, that is no argument for not seeking it.
One thing is for sure. In years to come, the present painful, stumbling, inept steps towards regulating cyberspace will seem laughable. The only question is how much damage will be done before this vast, monopolistic industry is brought to heel.