UK Gov't Considering Redefining Social Media Services As Publishers To Make It Easier To Control Them

from the failing-upward dept

Like seemingly every other government on the planet, the UK government wants internet companies like Google and Facebook to do more. Everyone has an axe to grind, whether it’s not enough censorship, or the wrong kind of censorship, or the innate desire to hold companies accountable for the actions of their users. The voluntary moderation efforts made by these platforms always fall short of politicians’ ideals. These legislators believe — without evidence — that perfectly moderated services are just a couple of button pushes away.

Because the things governments complain about are actually the words and deeds of users — rather than the companies themselves — pushes for “more” have limited effect. This doesn’t make governments happy. This is a “problem” that needs “solving,” apparently. And officials in the UK think they have an answer. They’ll just arbitrarily redefine services until they’re more easily pushed around.

Karen Bradley, the culture secretary, has said the government is considering changing the legal status of Google, Facebook and other internet companies amid growing concerns about copyright infringement and the spread of extremist material online.

The internet groups are considered conduits of information rather than publishers under UK law, meaning they have limited responsibility for what appears on their sites.

However, the chairman of the media regulator Ofcom said on Tuesday she believed the likes of Google and Facebook were publishers, raising the prospect that they could eventually face more regulation.

Before we delve into the bullshit that is redefining tech companies for easier regulation, let’s take a look at the activities the UK government is treating as equals: terrorism and copyright infringement. Tell me that’s not screwed up. I understand the government can be concerned about multiple online issues simultaneously, but while it may be conceivable the use of social media platforms by terrorists necessitates closer government scrutiny, mentioning infringement in the same breath cheapens the entire argument. It immediately makes it clear the endgame isn’t curbing murderous acts that kill and injure dozens of people, but regulation of any sort of internet activity the government finds bothersome.

This is the slippery slope, delivered by a government official in a single sentence. Terrorism concerns make it easy to diminish freedoms and expand governmental control of communication services. Once it’s set in motion, it remains in motion, moving from great evils like terrorism to comparatively minor quibbles like file sharing — an activity that has yet to kill anyone. One is an existential threat. The other threatens nothing more than incumbents and their business models. Bradley’s comment strongly suggests her ear’s been bent nearly to the point of removal by entertainment lobbyists.

Moving beyond that, there’s the problem with redefinition. You can’t call a cat a dog just because more people register dogs than cats and you want to see that revenue stream increased. You can’t call third parties publishers just because it makes it easier to hold them accountable for the actions of their users. If you head down this path, you invite every special interest group with a complaint about the internet to treat service providers as publishers. In short, you’re asking to rain down litigation hell on tech companies with the end result being fewer services available for internet users.

If there’s an upside, it’s that the culture secretary views this definition shift as problematic.

I am looking into this. I am not sure the publisher definition in UK law would necessarily work in the way that people would like it to work. I think it would end up being very restrictive and make the internet not work in the way we want it to work.

But Bradley also wants the UK to be the “safest place to be online.” It’s hard to maintain a “free vibrant internet” while clamping down on everything the UK government considers to be dangerous. Website blocking by UK service providers already creates something far less free and vibrant than can be found elsewhere, and yet, it hasn’t done much to make the UK much safer online, much less IRL.

Bradley may be hesitant to throw a different label on social media services, but the UK government as a whole hasn’t exactly been shy about creating an AOL-esque Wee Britain online — something that chills speech and deprives UK citizens of sources of information.

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Companies: facebook, google

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Comments on “UK Gov't Considering Redefining Social Media Services As Publishers To Make It Easier To Control Them”

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Anonymous Coward says:

The church and the aristocracies tried to exercise similar control over the printing press, and after a lot of wars, they found that they could not do so, and their power was significantly reduced or broken.

Now it is governments and corporations trying to control the Internet, and I just hope there is much less bloodshed on the road to reducing or breaking their power.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Technically yes. But the devil is in the details.

One could make the argument they never should have been removed from Title 2 because they are, by definition, a telecommunication service, not an information service.

Also, ISPs are undeniably behaving badly purely for their own benefit and greed. The only ones denying this are the ISPs themselves (and certain paid off turds who shall remain nameless). This is different from Google/Facebook/et al being redefined so that they can legally be held accountable for the actions of someone else.

In the US we redefined ISPs under Title 2 so we could hold them accountable for their own bad behavior.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Categorizing ISPs under title 2 means that they are responsible for delivering the data people ask for, and can not choose to modify or fail to deliver it.

Categorizing google as a publisher on the other hand would mean that literally everything on the internet would have to be reviewed by google, in its entirety, both when uploaded and after any change is made, before it can show up on the site.

To restate that last one, if ANYTHING bad shows up on google, google is legally responsible because they chose to publish it.

orbitalinsertion (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Only after re-defining them as not Title II in the first place. I was expecting this very question. ISPs are exactly analogous to phone lines for the purposes of Title II. They were, in fact, the phone lines for ages. Just because cablecos started selling “extra” bandwidth on their coax as internet (and very poorly at that), and some were smart enough, briefly, to deploy fiber outside the backbone (and then proceeded to buy up the backbone as well), doesn’t make the system, utility-wise, different from POTS. In fact, they are doing all the things AT&T was dismantled for, and they don’t even have amazing research departments that bring us really good inventions and innovations. Maybe they don’t manufacture their own user equipment and completely force you to use only that, but they have evolved functional equivalents. I think there are pretty good arguments that the bastard child, mobile, should be in the Title II space as well.

But that’s all irrelevant to this article, isn’t it?

Anonymous Coward says:

You can’t call third parties publishers just because it makes it easier to hold them accountable for the actions of their users.

But that’s not a crazy definition, or wouldn’t be if the more appropriate "conduit" definition didn’t exist. They are publishing information. It does raise the question of why the UK government thinks it’s OK to control publishers.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: No, it's YOU making "terrorism and copyright infringement" equal.

The only worry of you pirates is won’t be able to infringe copyright so easily in future. — Unless you’re also planning terrorism, which I don’t rule out because you pirates so clearly step over the line to outside the law, and once have done, there’s no limit. — Hmm. You’re here every day scheming how to break copyright as such which means directly opposing the US Constitution. — So you ARE consistent in equating “terrorism and copyright infringement”. — In future, I’ll take as nailed down that those who infringe copyright support terrorism. That’s YOUR equation, so don’t argue.

Anyhoo, when convenient, Techdirt asserts that Google and Facebook and Twitter can control speech on “platforms” however want; they already use the cover story of advertisers don’t want ads next to “extremist” content. But those mega-corps are suppressing “conservative” views of Antiwar and Infowars by removing advertising revenue, not those of radical “leftist” antifa. The alleged “moderation” done by the mega-platforms goes only one direction, and that’s in line with globalist plans.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: No, it's YOU making "terrorism and copyright infringement" equal.

Directly related: Techdirt doesn’t want to admit that when "Moderation" is partisan, the "platform" loses all protections of "safe harbor". Partisan includes blocking home IP address of dissenters, putting them at disadvantage by hiding comments which don’t violate common law, and any other action / policy which suppresses viewpoints, while coddling and promoting those who use abusive phrases like "ignorant motherfucker". — By doing all that (and more behind the scenes), Techdirt becomes The Publisher, and liable.

Wendy Cockcroft (user link) says:

Re: No, it's YOU making "terrorism and copyright infringement" equal.

Erm… wrong…!

Terror laws are being used on infringers. Give anyone enough power and believe me, they’ll abuse it.

As for copyright being a fountain deep and wide: no it’s not. It’s a rich man’s game. Unless you’re wildly popular you’re unlikely to make much from rent-seeking from intellectual output so I don’t get why you’re making such a fuss.

jdgalt (profile) says:

This actually makes a limited amount of sense to me.

If you actually read what the lady from Ofcom says, she is not suggesting that *all* message boards be treated as publishers — only those like Facebook, which already engage in substantial “moderating”. In other words, if you already censor then you have to do the whole job.

The Internet badly needs to continue to have uncensored forums, but the media giants — including Google, Yahoo, Facebook, and Twitter — seem determined to kill them off, and with them “hate speech” which is defined as any viewpoint to the right of Obama. Fuck that, and I’m glad the companies doing it are going to be burdened by this stupid law.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Cutting off your nose to spite your neighbor

In other words, if you already censor then you have to do the whole job.

This line seems to be in contradiction with the one immediately following it.

The Internet badly needs to continue to have uncensored forums

If partial moderation means that sites need to engage in full moderation then you can kiss ‘uncensored forums’ good-bye. Sites will either engage in zero moderation(have fun with that), or institute a ‘remove anything that might be problematic’ mindset such that only the absolute blandest, ‘not going to offend anyone‘-content is allowed.

If you object to what they do now, pause and consider how bad they’d be if moderation carried a very real risk and they had to worry about what was posted and how best to mitigate that risk.

Anonymous Coward says:

However, a “publisher” with with no servers and any presence in Britain does not have to follow British laws.

When I used to run a free VPN, when I ran my online radio station, as a way to bypass corporate network filters to tune in, that VPN server was ONLY subject to AMERICAN laws, becuase it was in my apartment in Sacramento, California.

In short, I only had follow American laws. So if Britain had outlawed or restricted VPN usage, I could have allow anyone in Britain to use VPN, and I would have, and I would not have been subject to any British laws, since my radio station, web site, and VPN server will all in the United States, meaning that HM Government had no jurisdiction over my servers.

I only recognised and obeyed United States laws on that one. If the British had ever wanted information about anyone using my website, I would told them to get lost, and that I would only recognize US jurisdiction over my servers.

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