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UK Gov't Considering Redefining Social Media Services As Publishers To Make It Easier To Control Them

Published: October 19, 2017
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Source: Tech Dirt


Like seemingly every other government on the planet, the UK government wants internet companies like Google and Facebook to do more. Everyone has an axe to grind, whether it's not enough censorship, or the wrong kind of censorship, or the innate desire to hold companies accountable for the actions of their users. The voluntary moderation efforts made by these platforms always fall short of politicians' ideals. These legislators believe -- without evidence -- that perfectly moderated services are just a couple of button pushes away.

Because the things governments complain about are actually the words and deeds of users -- rather than the companies themselves -- pushes for "more" have limited effect. This doesn't make governments happy. This is a "problem" that needs "solving," apparently. And officials in the UK think they have an answer. They'll just arbitrarily redefine services until they're more easily pushed around.

Karen Bradley, the culture secretary, has said the government is considering changing the legal status of Google, Facebook and other internet companies amid growing concerns about copyright infringement and the spread of extremist material online.

The internet groups are considered conduits of information rather than publishers under UK law, meaning they have limited responsibility for what appears on their sites.

However, the chairman of the media regulator Ofcom said on Tuesday she believed the likes of Google and Facebook were publishers, raising the prospect that they could eventually face more regulation.

Before we delve into the bullshit that is redefining tech companies for easier regulation, let's take a look at the activities the UK government is treating as equals: terrorism and copyright infringement. Tell me that's not screwed up. I understand the government can be concerned about multiple online issues simultaneously, but while it may be conceivable the use of social media platforms by terrorists necessitates closer government scrutiny, mentioning infringement in the same breath cheapens the entire argument. It immediately makes it clear the endgame isn't curbing murderous acts that kill and injure dozens of people, but regulation of any sort of internet activity the government finds bothersome.

This is the slippery slope, delivered by a government official in a single sentence. Terrorism concerns make it easy to diminish freedoms and expand governmental control of communication services. Once it's set in motion, it remains in motion, moving from great evils like terrorism to comparatively minor quibbles like file sharing -- an activity that has yet to kill anyone. One is an existential threat. The other threatens nothing more than incumbents and their business models. Bradley's comment strongly suggests her ear's been bent nearly to the point of removal by entertainment lobbyists.

Moving beyond that, there's the problem with redefinition. You can't call a cat a dog just because more people register dogs than cats and you want to see that revenue stream increased. You can't call third parties publishers just because it makes it easier to hold them accountable for the actions of their users. If you head down this path, you invite every special interest group with a complaint about the internet to treat service providers as publishers. In short, you're asking to rain down litigation hell on tech companies with the end result being fewer services available for internet users.

If there's an upside, it's that the culture secretary views this definition shift as problematic.

I am looking into this. I am not sure the publisher definition in UK law would necessarily work in the way that people would like it to work. I think it would end up being very restrictive and make the internet not work in the way we want it to work.

But Bradley also wants the UK to be the "safest place to be online." It's hard to maintain a "free vibrant internet" while clamping down on everything the UK government considers to be dangerous. Website blocking by UK service providers already creates something far less free and vibrant than can be found elsewhere, and yet, it hasn't done much to make the UK much safer online, much less IRL.

Bradley may be hesitant to throw a different label on social media services, but the UK government as a whole hasn't exactly been shy about creating an AOL-esque Wee Britain online -- something that chills speech and deprives UK citizens of sources of information.

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