Will new laws control the big tech companies?

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Will new laws control the big tech companies?

There is now a lot criticism of the big social media companies. But are the actions to control them, including new privacy laws, the best? Mike Morel reports:

The long criticism of the big social media companies is now global. There are criticisms in every area - from privacy issues to involvement in foreign elections, from supporting terrorism to causing depression in young people. These trusted companies are now losing everyone’s trust.

People are also calling the public’s use of technology an addiction. In China parents send their children to military style camps to take them away from their computers and mobile phones. The newspapers and magazines that survived the internet are now finding it difficult to adapt to ever-changing algorithms that send headlines into the news feeds of Facebook or Google or Yahoo for users and to make money from advertising.

The big digital companies have almost total power – they are rich, powerful, unaccountable, and they are also unregulated.

Many are now saying: we must do something. But what?

Safety, free speech, and privacy

In Britain, there are a number of ideas in the new Digital Charter to make social media companies behave better.

They include everything from child sexual abuse and cyberbullying to terrorist propaganda. There are positive plans like the Internet Safety Strategy to improve the public’s digital literacy and increase the openness of social media companies.

Other ideas are more worrying. Taking down content quickly, for example. Violent extremist content and child pornography are big problems that need attention. But the British plan for big fines if social media platforms do not remove illegal content within two hours, would damage freedom of speech. It would be stricter then Germany’s €50 million penalty for illegal content not removed within 24 hours.

Taking down content quickly requires automated filters because human monitors cannot look at material quickly enough. ‘We know that automatic technology like this can stop terrorist action,’ said the now former UK Home Secretary. Amber Rudd when talking about a new anti-ISIS superfilter. But algorithms do not understand context. They will also censor parodies, studies, and commentary about terrorist propaganda.

The censorship tool Blocked.org.uk found thousands of examples of websites wrongfully blocked because algorithms can’t understand context. Resources to prevent sexual abuse or to help survivors, rehabilitation centres, and other counselling websites are often called ‘adult content’ and blocked across the UK. Other victims of blocking include a women’s news website, a blog about the Syrian war, and a London watch-making business!

The possibility of big fines gives social media platforms every reason to over-block or censor. A mistake could cost millions.

The Digital Charter does not define clear standards for online content. With no government leadership, the big internet companies have their own definitions and have plans for more technological solutions. Do these plans really help what is worrying people or are they just trying to show they are doing something?

In May 2018 the European Union introduced the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). This gives individuals more control over their personal data with restrictions on how long companies can hold your data. It would be a good idea for the rest of the world to do this and if they hope to keep doing business with the EU.

Britain is adding GDPR into a new Data Protection Bill.

Internet neutrality

The tech companies are great for America so US lawmakers do not want really want to challenge them. Will the scandal over Facebook, Cambridge Analytica, and 87 million people’s data privacy and the lawsuit, change the US lawmakers?

In December 2017 the US authorities seemed to go in the opposite direction and to keep the power of the big tech companies. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), unelected and appointed by the president, took action to stop internet neutrality protections.

Internet neutrality is the idea that all data should all be the same in the way it comes and goes from your device. It ensures your friend’s blog goes to your mobile phone as fast as the New York Times. This keeps the internet’s founders’ idea of free speech. Internet neutrality is for legal content, so it does not mean nuclear bomb manuals or pirated content are freely available online. But it does give small companies with big stories a chance against the big tech companies.

Unfortunately internet service providers (ISPs) prefer some content because of profit. Most of the public was against the idea but paying to get priority on websites is now legal in the US. So ISPs can charge those who can pay to have their websites delivered faster. Half of Americans have a ‘choice’ of just one ISP, and this means they have no choice if their ISP pays favourites.

It is not a surprise that 83 per cent of Americans wanted to keep internet neutrality. It is also not surprising that Ajit Pai, chair of the FCC which wants to stop internet neutrality, was a lawyer with Verizon – a big internet service provider.

But in the US, the end of internet neutrality is not certain. The attempt to end it can be challenged in court or stopped by Congress. At the same time the Justice Department is trying to stop the big merger of media and telecommunications companies TimeWarner and AT&T.

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg had to apologize for his company’s activities and failures to stop the loss of users’ privacy and to report it when it happened in 2015.

The power seems to have moved a little. But worries about a company’s unfair advantage in a particular market is less important than the bigger question of whether big business is taking away power from democracy itself. When and if governments do not make the criticisms into law, we will have our answer.

Mike Morel is campaigns manager with The Open Rights Group.

NOW READ THE ORIGINAL: https://newint.org/features/web-exclusive/2018/05/18/privacy-laws-internet-blocked

(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed)