Q: As Facebook steps up its efforts to tackle online extremism, is there still a case for internet regulation?
The need for decisive action to tackle online extremism is clear. Four terrorist attacks in four months have been accompanied by a rapid growth of extremist content online, and the internet is now a major hub for radicalisation. Facebook’s initiative to support groups working to challenge extremist narratives is a welcome step (a whole-of-society approach to pushing extremists to the margins of cyberspace is important), but it is no substitute for effective governance. We’ve been here before. Repeatedly the tech industry has promised action, offering to increase safeguards and intensify their efforts, yet little meaningful change materialises. A new regulator for internet service providers and social media companies, with the power to sanction those that fail to identify and remove extremist content, would help protect users from harmful material. Ultimately, only sustained pressure – from both government and civil society – will bring about the sea-change in attitude needed to make the tech companies take real responsibility for their content.
Section 230 of the 1996 US Telecommunications Act is the most important legislative paragraph you have never heard of. It means that tech firms are not liable for the content their users post. Without it, Google, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter could never have existed. Governments across the world followed this approach and consumers benefited massively. Theresa May’s plan to regulate the internet changes that. Startups will need thousands of moderators to screen out extremist content and nearly as many psychiatrists to look after them. It will be a gargantuan task. But extremist content on YouTube means less ad-revenue from image-conscious brands. Google knows that and will pursue innovative solutions to take that content down. Take the fight against child exploitation. Google goes above and beyond legal requirements developing tools to scan for abuse images and to turn abusers over to justice. Competition, not heavy-handed regulation from risk-averse politicians, is the solution.