Britain to give regulator power over social media

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.

Fighting words: Journalism is under attack in Europe

Note: This is something I originally wrote for the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I’m the chief digital writer

The United States is far from the only country where journalists work in a toxic political environment, one in which the leader of the nation routinely attacks and demonizes the media. A recently published report from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University in the UK describes how similar patterns can be seen in a number of other countries in central and eastern Europe, including Hungary — where leader Viktor Orban has centralized control of the press — and Turkey, where president Recep Erdogan has done more or less the same thing. The report, entitled “Fighting Words: Journalism Under Assault in Central and Eastern Europe,” surveyed working journalists in 16 countries about the working conditions and attacks they face. And this week on CJR’s Galley discussion platform, we hosted a series of interviews based around the publication of the report, including a discussion with Meera Selva, the director of Reuters Institute’s fellowship program (and a veteran journalist with experience in Singapore, London, and Nairobi), as well as a number of discussions with fellows about their perceptions on the topic of journalism under attack.

Selva noted in her interview that there has been a notable decline in press freedom in many countries in the region, including Poland and Hungary, where populist parties came to power and exerted partisan control over the media. There are similar problems in countries like Bulgaria and Serbia, Selva said, where journalists have become targets for threats and violence. In Slovakia, an investigative journalist named Ján Kuciak was murdered, along with his fiancee, Martina Kušnírová, while working on a story about government corruption. His death sparked protests across the country and eventually brought down the government. In other countries, however, attacks continue, a process that Selva says has two prongs: “One part involves verbally criticizing journalists, and the other part involves weakening the legal, economic and structural frameworks that support independent journalism. This can involve changing laws on media ownership so that only government-friendly investors can buy media outlets.”

One aspect of this toxic environment that she found really striking, Selva says, was how many journalists talked about attacks that came not from the government but from other journalists. In many of the countries the media have split on pro-government and anti-government lines and journalists from one side have no solidarity with those from the other, she says, and so “the idea of a journalist as an impartial, independent observer is being undermined.” In some countries there has been support for the press, such as in Slovakia after Kuciak was murdered, but “in other countries, protests have been a general howl of anger against the establishment, and the media is seen as part of that establishment,” says Selva. Reuters fellow Nana Ama Agyemang Asante, who is from Ghana, said that she has noticed a similar trend in her country as well. “There has been a shift in the relationship between journalists and the Ghanaian public,” she says. “They are no longer trusted and in some cases are seen as part of the problem, as part of the corrupt class and now face constant attacks online and offline.”

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Facebook lays out the rules for its new Supreme Court for content

Note: This is something I originally wrote for the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I’m the chief digital writer

Until recently, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg rejected any suggestion that his company was a media entity, despite the fact that the platform’s all-powerful News Feed algorithm chooses what to show users based on a series of unknown editorial criteria, and that tens of millions of posts, photos, and other pieces of content are taken down every year because they breach the company’s rules. In the spring of 2018, however, in an interview with Ezra Klein of Vox, the Facebook CEO seemed to be growing accustomed to the idea that the company was a kind of media entity, and even mused out loud that maybe Facebook should have a kind of editorial board — or a Supreme Court, as he described it; an external body that would “ultimately make the final judgment call on what should be acceptable speech.” Over the past two years, Facebook has been trying to fulfil that promise, designing what it calls an Oversight Board, and this week the company announced the bylaws or rules that the board will operate under, as well as its first staff member.

The director of the new entity is Thomas Hughes, former executive director of a group called Article 19, an international non-governmental organization that focuses on freedom of expression and digital rights (named after the section of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that deals with freedom of expression). Hughes will essentially run a limited liability company called Oversight Board LLC that Facebook created, which in turn will be financed by Facebook through an arms-length trust (which the company has committed to funding for six years). As it did with its star-crossed attempt at launching a cryptocurrency called Libra, the social network is going above and beyond in order to show that it is taking a hands-off approach to the new entity. The bylaws for the group even state explicitly that the board can overrule Zuckerberg or any other Facebook executive when it comes to content decisions. That said, however, there are some pretty large caveats.

For example, the three co-chairs who will be in charge of running the board (Hughes will run the administrative side of things, rather than the group that makes the actual decisions) are to be chosen by Facebook, which for many will raise immediate questions about the impartiality of those who are selected. Those co-chairs will then have the responsibility of choosing the rest of the board, which could number as many as 40 people (the Facebook bylaws don’t specify an exact number, but say that the “ideal number” of members is 40). And when it comes to the kinds of cases that this board will hear, Facebook has placed some restrictions on that — at least initially. For example, at least for the first while, the company says that the board will only be able to hear cases about content that was taken down, and make decisions about whether these removals were appropriate. It won’t be able to adjudicate whether content that wasn’t taken down should have been — such as the video of Speaker Nancy Pelosi that was slowed down to make her appear drunk. Facebook said that this restriction could change over time, but didn’t say when or why.

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Rebecca Elson, Canadian astronomer and poet

I had never heard of Rebecca Elson before, until I came across a piece last year that was written by Maria Popova, who publishes a wonderful newsletter/website called BrainPickings, which I highly recommend. Elson was born in Montreal and became a celebrated astronomer, getting her doctorate from Cambridge, followed by a post-doc research fellowship at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study (which was founded by Albert Einstein) to work on data from the Hubble telescope. Its launch was delayed after the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, however, so she found refuge in creative writing, which she wound up teaching at Harvard while on a fellowship there. She was also diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma, a form of blood cancer. She returned to Cambridge to do research on the Hubble images — and to write poetry — while her disease was in remission, but it eventually returned and she died in 1999 at the age of 39. To celebrate her life, Maria Popova held a reading of her poetry by singer/songwriter Regina Spektor (via BrainPickings)

The Universe in Verse: Regina Spektor reads “Theories of Everything” by Rebecca Elson from Maria Popova on Vimeo.

A photo essay of abandoned Italian mansions

Paris-based photographer Thomas Jorion has gone out of his way to prove that in Italy, even neglected things can be excessively beautiful. Over the past decade, Jorion has traveled across Italy to document the country’s most stunning abandoned buildings. His work—which mainly focuses on spaces from the 18th and 19th century—has culminated in the project Veduta (View). Jorion won’t reveal their exact locations, but we do know that the majority can be found between the regions of Umbria and Tuscany in central Italy, and Lombardy in the north. (via Vice)

Is the Salvator Mundi a lost $450M masterpiece or a fraud?

The art world is a strange place. Millionaires and billionaires bid ridiculous amounts for even trivial pieces of art, and anything by one of the masters routinely goes for hundreds of millions of dollars. But ancient art is far from an exact science, and that’s what makes the story of the so-called “Salvator Mundi” so fascinating. It was bought in a small New Orleans auction house in 2005 for about $1,000, and appeared to be a copy of the famous Leonardo da Vinci painting known as the Salvator Mundi — a portrait of Christ facing the viewer, with his right hand raised. Da Vinci painted it in 1500, possibly for Louis XXII. There are plenty of copies of it around, but as the painting was painstakingly restored, its owner and the restorers working on it became convinced that it was the original Da Vinci — at which point it went from being worth a few hundred thousand dollars to being worth a few hundred million.

The picture has since sold once for $127.5 million and again, in a record-setting auction at Christie’s, for close to half a billion dollars. It has been held up as the “male Mona Lisa” and the “Holy Grail of old-master paintings” and derided by this magazine’s art critic, Jerry Saltz, as a “two-dimensional ersatz dashboard Jesus.” It has been owned by a Swiss tycoon, a Russian oligarch, and Saudi royalty. Its rise is both an astonishing tale of restoration and historical sleuthing and — for those inclined to see the world less romantically — a parable of highbrow greed, P. T. Barnum–style salesmanship, and reputation laundering.

— via The Invention of the ‘Salvator Mundi’ Or, How to Turn a $1,000 Art-Auction Pickup Into a $450 Million Masterpiece

Government funding for journalism: necessary evil or just evil?


Note: This is something I originally wrote for the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I’m the chief digital writer

It’s not news that many journalistic outlets in North America, with the exception of a select few like the New York Times or the Washington Post, are in the midst of a funding crisis. Advertising revenue continues to decline, thanks in part to the market power of digital giants such as Google and Facebook, and so virtually every publisher big or small has had to find other sources of funding. Some have turned to venture capital, while others are experimenting with nonprofit status, crowdfunding, and even selling shares to their supporters. And now there’s another controversial source of financing being added to the mix: Government funding. In New Jersey, the state has agreed to give a nonprofit entity called the Civic Information Consortium $2 million to hand out to publishers. And in Canada, the government created a $600 million fund aimed at supporting journalism through a variety of tax breaks and grants. But does government money come with too many strings attached and too many potential conflicts of interest? Or is it better than nothing?

To answer these and other related questions, we invited a range of experts, critics, and observers to join us on our Galley discussion platform for a virtual panel on the topic, including: Jeff Jarvis, director of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at the City University of New York; Victor Pickard of USC Annenberg’s School for Communication; Mike Rispoli of Free Press in New Jersey, one of the architects of the Civic Information Consortium proposal; Molly de Aguiar, who runs the Independence Public Media Foundation in Philadelphia; Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia; Caitlin Johnson of Policy Matters Ohio; Jeremy Klaszus of The Sprawl in Calgary, Alberta and Saima Desai, editor of Briarpatch magazine in Saskatchewan. All of those interviews—along with featured interviews from previous Galley panels—can be found on the Galley site.

On the question of whether taking government funding is a necessary evil or just evil, Jarvis definitely came down in favor of the latter. “I see danger everywhere if government funds or in any way approves or interferes with journalism and speech,” he said. “To accept funding from government, no matter the alleged safeguards, puts us at risk of mortal conflict of interest. Whom do we serve then? Need I say it? Follow the money.” Jarvis also admitted, however, that every revenue source brings with it the potential for conflicts of interest (the News Integrity Initiative, which is part of the Tow-Knight Center and the Craig Newmark School of Journalism at CUNY, is partially funded by Facebook). Many people hold the BBC in Britain up as an example of how government funding for journalism can work, and it has done much good, Jarvis says.
“But now my fears are coming to life as we see Boris Johnson coming to attack the BBC, its franchise, its funding, and its legitimacy. If given similar power in this country, I shudder to think what Trump would do.”

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