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Policing the internet: Freedom of speech vs protection

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It’s a discussion that’s been brewing for a long time. In a world where every minute, 300 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube, 136,000 photos are shared to Facebook and 474,000 tweets are posted, should this content be moderated – and if so, how?

Lately, a large portion of public opinion has sided with the need for internet regulation in some form. Last year, Instagram pledged to remove all images showing methods of self-harm or suicide following the death of teenager Molly Russell

High-profile headlines like this have increased public awareness and led to an increased pressure on social media and content platforms to ‘do more’. In a survey commissioned by the NSPCC, 9 out 10 parents said they supported increased internet regulation – to make companies legally responsible for exposure to inappropriate content. 

Not only this but, fake news is becoming a growing concern. A recent survey found that 45 per cent of the UK public believe they encounter this online at least once a day. The issue is even said to be affecting how we vote. So much so, that the government’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee has called for an independent investigation into voter manipulation for past elections, including the 2016 UK Referendum. 

In the past, tech companies have hit back at calls for increased control citing the need for free speech. It’s a line that has previously resonated with those concerned about a ‘Big Brother’ state having seen how internet regulation can be taken to the extreme in places like China. It’s also an argument that Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, has frequently used to defend his platform against criticisms that it’s become a place for biased content and misinformation.

Last year, the social media giant clashed with the European Union over a court case involving Austrian Green Party politician Eva Glawischnig-Piesczek. When she won a case for defamation against a post made on Facebook, The European Court of Justice said it should be deleted not just in Austria, but around the world as well. In response, Monkia Bickert, Head of Global Policy at Facebook, accused the EU of reaching beyond their borders to censor critics. 

Recent developments, however, have drawn this debate to a close – in the UK at least. Companies like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have always had their own policies on how to regulate content. But, this February, the government has announced plans for communications regulator Ofcom to be given new powers to police the internet – with a focus on making sure that companies take down illegal or harmful content. 

Decision-makers have, it seems, decided that it’s time to take matters into their own hands. Explaining what this could look like going forwards, Melanie Dawes, Ofcom Chief Executive, has said that it will ‘focus on the wider systems and processes that platforms have in place’ to deal with inappropriate content. While the regulator won’t be removing content itself, it will be defining how companies make content-removal decisions.  

The announcement is a big victory for those who believe that these online platforms have already had the chance to prove they can self-regulate. On the flip side of the coin, others have raised concerns about over-regulation later down the line. A decision on whether company executives should be personally liable for material is still to be made. 

Whatever the future holds, it’s certainly worth watching to see where these developments will lead. And it seems that, given this announcement, companies could be taking a new approach. In fact, Facebook has now published its own recommendations for future regulation – perhaps indicating a growing realisation that it needs to engage with policy and decision-makers on this issue. 

Writing in the Financial Times post-announcement, Mark Zuckerberg said: “I believe good regulation may hurt Facebook’s business in the near term, but it will be better for everyone, including us, over the long term…. If we don’t create standards that people feel are legitimate, they won’t trust institutions or technology.”


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