Note: This is something I originally wrote for the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I’m the chief digital writer
Convincing digital platforms like Facebook and YouTube to remove offensive content is a tricky business in the US, thanks to laws like Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act and the First Amendment. In Britain, however, there are a lot fewer restrictions on what the government can and can’t do when it comes to regulating the behavior of the digital giants. On Wednesday, the government said it plans to put forward legislation that would give Ofcom, the broadcast regulator, control over social-media platforms. The proposed law comes in response to a federal inquiry that produced last year’s Online Harms white paper, and it would allow Ofcom to fine—and even in some cases imprison—any executives that refuse to remove illegal content in a timely manner, or even content that isn’t actually illegal but could be seen as “damaging to children or other vulnerable users,” as the Online Harms white paper described it.
A lot of lobbying still has to take place before the proposed legislation becomes law, but conceptually at least, it is similar to Germany’s so-called NetzDG law, which came into effect in 2018 (the law’s formal name is the Gesetz zur Verbesserung der Rechtsdurchsetzung in sozialen Netzwerken). That law gives German authorities the ability to levy fines of up to $60 million per infraction against digital networks—or in fact any online service with more than 2 million users—if they fail to remove illegal or offensive content within 24 hours of being notified about it (Facebook, which has been fined, has complained that the law “lacks clarity”). So far, the British authorities haven’t said anything about implementing specific fines or time periods in relation to removing content, but they have said in extreme cases they may block access to a digital service entirely.
Requiring the removal of illegal content is one thing, but where some critics say the British law could run into trouble is with the definition of content that isn’t actually illegal but could be seen as “damaging to children and other vulnerable users.” That could tip the law towards outright state censorship, some argue. Since Britain doesn’t have anything like the First Amendment, it’s easier for the government to impose restrictions on free speech and freedom of the press—such as the “super injunctions” that can block news outlets from mentioning not just specific details about a court case, but even the fact that a court case exists at all. But some believe that forcing digital networks to block certain kinds of content even when that content doesn’t actually break the law is going a step too far.
When it comes to “unacceptable” content that isn’t illegal, the Online Harms white paper talks about how digital platforms can be “a tool for abuse and bullying,” and adds that they can also be used to undermine “democratic values and debate.” Two incidents that helped spur the British government to focus on these kinds of issues were the death of 14-year-old Molly Russell in 2017, and the attack on the Christchurch synagogue in New Zealand in March of last year. Russell committed suicide, and her parents and other advocates believe that the availability of content related to self-harm on Instagram and other networks helped contribute to her death. The attack in Christchurch, meanwhile, was streamed live on Facebook by the shooter, and the video was uploaded elsewhere after the incident.
From a journalistic point of view, one of the many things that remains unclear about the proposed law is how it would distinguish between digital platforms and traditional publishers. According to The Guardian, which was briefed on the legislation, the rules would apply to “any business that enables the sharing of user-generated content,” including online comments or video uploads. Many traditional news sites have user comments and allow their subscribers to contribute video and other content. Will they be required to follow the same rules as Facebook, and be subject to the same kinds of fines and penalties? No one knows for sure. The government has reportedly reassured publishers that they won’t, but it’s not clear how the law will distinguish between different providers.
Here’s more on Britain and the proposed law:
Wild West: In an opinion piece written for The Telegraph, Britain’s Home Secretary Priti Patel said that she would not accept a “wild west internet where abuse and exploitation thrive,” and that the “era of self-regulation of the Internet is coming to an end.” Among other things, Patel took aim at encryption—which Facebook uses for its WhatsApp messaging service—saying the use of end-to-end encryption “creates havens for criminals and predators.” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said last year that private messaging and encryption were the future of the network.
Too little: Drew Benvie, who runs a communications consulting company in the UK, writes in an op-ed for The Drum that he fears the new legislation will be too little and too late. He adds that he thinks having a UK-only watchdog is “narrow-sighted and unrealistic,” because social networks are global, and therefore regulation and legislation needs to be global as well. “Ofcom has arguably the biggest catch-up job of any regulator ever seen,” he says. “It’s clearly a step in the right direction, but very much a baby one.”
Damp squib: Chris Stokel-Walker, writing in New Scientist, says that he doubts the new law will have much of an impact on the things the government is so concerned about. He says it is “somewhat of a damp squib, providing little more than an official stamp of approval to actions those social networks already take.” While the new regulator might be able to fine digital platforms for hosting certain content, Stokel-Walker writes, “YouTube announced last week that it earned $15 billion from adverts alone last year, so any fine will be a drop in the ocean.”
Not keen: A number of business and free-speech advocacy groups in the UK were noticeably unimpressed with the proposed legislation, including the Adam Smith Institute, whose head of research pointed out that the government “has not stated what content is and is not in scope and what powers this regulator will have.” Adam Lesh added that “any speech that is legal to say offline should also be legal to say online–in a free country no-one should have the power to force anyone to censor legal speech.”
Other notable stories:
Greg Glassner writes for CJR about Caroline County in Virginia, part of a series called the Year of Fear, in which CJR and The Delacorte Review are focusing on small towns across the US and how they are handling the upcoming election. A fairly rural area, Caroline has been insulated from much of the political turmoil, Glassner says, but it has not remained untouched by the forces that have been disrupting the media all across the country: the local newspaper, the Caroline Progress, recently announced it was shutting down after almost 100 years in print.
According to a report in Wired magazine, a study by researchers from King’s College London, the privacy-focused web browser Brave, and the research arm of Spanish telecom firm Telefonica compared the surveillance practices of left- and right-leaning news sites across the web. The study found that sites classified as right-wing use an average of 10 percent more cookies—small bits of data that allow sites to identify a user—than their left-wing counterparts: 65 cookies for the average right-wing site compared with 58 for the average left-wing one, according to the researchers.
In an opinion piece in The Guardian, podcast host Benjamin Dixon says Michael Bloomberg’s wealth has allowed him to avoid facing the scrutiny that other candidates have had to deal with, and argues that this needs to change. Dixon says he came across an audio clip from a speech Bloomberg gave at the Aspen Institute in 2015, in which the former New York City mayor argued that police should be put in minority neighborhoods to do stop-and-frisk campaigns because “that’s where the crime is.”
The New Republic is launching a new look for the century-old magazine, as well as a podcast and a metered paywall, according to a report by MediaPost. The redesign will be introduced with the upcoming March issue, the site said, including a new logo, typography, layout and illustrations. The paywall, which will be soft-launched in the next week or so, will begin with allowing visitors three articles to read for free, the report says. If readers sign up for a newsletter, they get three more articles. A digital subscription will cost $20 a year, and a print and digital bundle will cost $30.
YouTube has been trying to remove conspiracy theories and disinformation about the coronavirus, but much of this kind of content remains, according to a survey by BuzzFeed. The site says viewed a list on Monday of 500 of the most-watched YouTube videos featuring the keyword “coronavirus,” and while there are clips from reputable news entities, there are also plenty of videos with millions of views that claim the virus is an engineered bio-weapon or that the death count is 10 times higher than it is.
The New York Times writes about a new memoir from Dan Peres, former editor of Details magazine, part of the Condé Nast empire. During much of his seven-year tenure at the helm of the popular fashion-and-culture magazine, Peres says he was fighting an addiction to Vicodin, which he claims involved popping as many as 60 pills a day. The memoir joins a sub-genre of reminiscences from former Condé Nast staffers, the Times notes, including Tina Brown’s Vanity Fair Diaries, a memoir from former Gourmet magazine editor Ruth Reichl called Save Me the Plums, and More Than Enough, by former Teen Vogue editor Elaine Welteroth.
Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan writes that the media has not paid enough attention to Bernie Sanders in its campaign coverage. “The subtext behind much of the disdain is a partly a deep-seated sentiment that Sanders, if nominated, has little chance of winning the general election,” Sullivan says. “But it’s also partly—and more insidiously—that many journalists don’t identify easily with Sanders in the same way they do with, say, Warren or O’Rourke or Buttigieg.”
Reuters is launching a new fact-checking blog and is joining the Facebook group of third-party fact-checkers with a new business unit called Reuters Fact Check. A four-person team from the news agency will review user-generated video and photos as well as news headlines and other content in English and Spanish that is submitted by Facebook or flagged by the wider Reuters editorial team, according to a report in TechCrunch.
The Google News Initiative and Oxford University have agreed on an extension to the search giant’s current grant for the Digital News Report and the related Digital News Project produced by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, which is based at Oxford. The grant, which was originally announced in 2015, has been extended until 2023. The financial value of the total agreement is $6 million, the Reuters Institute says.
Bonnier Corp., publisher of such magazines as Field & Stream and Yachting, has been meeting with bankers to explore its options, including the possible sale of the unit that holds most of its magazines, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal quoting people familiar with the situation. One person said the talks are exploratory at this point. “They first want to know what the media assets are worth before an y decisions are made,” said the person.