22.214.171.124 Internet Censorship and Regulation
Solving the problem of Internet censorship and regulation is urgent, to reduce the potential for serious harm to society.
Politicians, and others who wish to influence the course of politics, now advertise on Internet social media. These advertisements are scattered among the huge amount of content that people put up when communicating with their families, friends and neighbours. Some of those who post on social media can hide their identities, and they can be located anywhere in the world, so much of what people read cannot be held to account in the same way as traditional media.
As described above (126.96.36.199), the big Internet companies wield enormous power and enable “fake news” to spread very quickly. This is lucrative for them, but it can be very damaging to society:
● The US elections in 2016 were influenced by Russia, as admitted in a subsequent investigation reported in The Guardian: Tech giants face Congress as showdown over Russia election meddling looms.
● The BBC reported that “Climate change denial is spreading unchecked on Facebook, two studies by disinformation researchers have found”.
● The Lancet reported that “31 million people follow anti-vaccine groups on Facebook, with 17 million people subscribing to similar accounts on YouTube”. The anti-vaccine movement has cost thousands of lives: Covid-19: Unvaccinated face 11 times risk of death from delta variant, CDC data show.
The British parliament has now passed the Online Safety Act 2023 into law. It recognises the impact of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and requires “providers of services regulated by this Act to identify, mitigate and manage the risks of harm”. A BBC summary of this new law notes that “Platforms will ..need to show they are committed to removing illegal content including:
● child sexual abuse
● controlling or coercive behaviour
● extreme sexual violence
● illegal immigration and people smuggling
● promoting or facilitating suicide
● promoting self-harm
● animal cruelty
● selling illegal drugs or weapons
Messaging services “like WhatsApp, Signal and iMessage say they cannot access or view anybody’s messages without destroying existing privacy protections for all users, and have threatened to leave the UK rather than compromise message security”. Clearly, regulation of messaging services is a work in progress rather than a total solution at this stage.
When social media companies are made responsible for Internet censorship and regulation, they can make mistakes. For example, Facebook’s AI treats Palestinian activists like it treats American Black activists. It blocks them. Twitter admitted having a similar problem, and the “companies blamed the errors on glitches in artificial intelligence software”.
Freedom of speech is a difficult topic which recurs in many places in this book, as can be seen from its free speech index. This dilemma was recognised when Donald Trump was banned from Twitter, after his use of the platform helped to create the conditions for a riot: as reported in a BBC article: Twitter boss: Trump ban is ‘right’ but ‘dangerous’.
It is important to allow people to criticise a government – and the importance of free speech is described at the end of this chapter (6.8.3). The Economist has argued that Censorious governments are abusing “fake news” laws, but democracy (or any form of government) can suffer if lies are allowed to spread unchecked. Spreading misinformation is different from legitimate criticism, and politicians shouldn’t be able to win elections or provoke riots just by lying.
This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books. An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/6428.htm.